Lax rules blamed as unruly fliers tarnish air travel image

The aviation industry saw its reputation take a nosedive when in a horrific incident, a man urinated on an elderly female co-passenger on board an Air India flight from New York to Delhi. Can stricter rules help in reining in unruly passengers mid-air? A report by  Aayush Goel

“The truth is that Indians are the world’s worst passengers. We shove, we push, we treat staff badly, we refuse to obey rules and we treat our fellow passengers with a total lack of respect” opines leading columnist Vir Sanghvi. Sanghvi’s statement has drawn attention towards recent instances of unruly passengers and Airlines failure to deal aptly with them. Instances of inappropriate conduct on flights have gone up in the recent past and all thanks to social media being viral tarnishing not just the image of air travel but also Indian passengers. Ridicule over how people behave mid-air and how airlines try to cover up such incidents due to their commercial interests has made the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to pull up airlines reminding them of their responsibilities and duty to act.

The hall of shame

The aviation industry woke up to a shock with reports of a man allegedly urinating on an elderly female co-passenger on board an Air India flight from New York to Delhi on November 26, 2022 .The incident happened when flight was on its way from John F Kennedy International airport in New York to Delhi.

The traumatised flier in her letter to the chairman of the Board of Tata Sons, N Chandrasekaran expressed deep disappointment over the incident in the business class section of the flight and the way it was handled. She highlighted that post lunch when lights were dimmed within minutes, an inebriated male walked to her seat and unzipped his pants, urinated and continued to expose his private parts until another passenger asked him to return to his seat.

The woman passenger, in the letter, also highlighted that when asked for a change of seat, “the airline refused and informed us there were no seats available”. She also complained of being allotted a small seat used by the airline staff, by one of the senior stewardesses. She also pointed out that the perpetrator did not face any consequence and walked out the Delhi airport without any worry. Following an uproar, airlines moved to police which registered an FIR in the matter under sections 354, 509, 510 of the Indian Penal Code and section 23 of the Indian Aircraft Act. The accused, a senior Vice-President in an American multinational financial services company, was sacked by his employers.

People had hardly recovered from this shocking incident when another mid-air urination incident came to the fore. On December 6, a drunk man allegedly urinated on the blanket of a female passenger on a Paris-Delhi Air India flight. No action was taken as the male passenger gave a written apology, according to officials. The male passenger was apprehended though, but was left off after mutual compromise. On the same flight, another inebriated passenger was found smoking in the lavatory and disobeying crew members, the DGCA said. Air India went ahead filing complaint against the accused and has banned the passenger for 30 days and initiated an internal enquiry.

The airline CEO, Campbell Wilson, in an internal mail sent to its staff asked them to report such incidents even if it is mutually settled. “Clear on the standard of behaviour that is expected on our aircraft and take firm, decisive and timely action against those who do not comply,” added the CEO.

In another instance a video went viral that showed a passenger, who called a cabin crew “servant”. The incident came to light when a video went viral on December 16 last year after which the DGCA launched an investigation that happened on IndiGo 6E 12 Istanbul-Delhi and showed a passenger calling a cabin crew member his “servant” amidst a high-pitched argument. “The issue was related to meals chosen by certain passengers traveling via a codeshare connection,” said IndiGo.

“Majority of passengers boarding flights are unruly. Fights over seats, food and proper use of lavatory is common. Many even gawk and misbehave with on board female crew and we are forced to take it in the name of hospitality. As there are norms for our conduct, so should be for people” says Sunaina Bakshi (name changed on request), an airhostess with Indigo.

Similarly in another such incident which went viral on social media  a fight broke out that escalated into a brawl on the Bangkok India flight reportedly on December 27.The altercation happened aboard a Thai Smile Airways flight. The clip shows two men arguing and a flight attendant trying to defuse the situation. The man on the receiving end of the blows just tries to shield himself from the assault. Flight attendants are heard telling the men to stop fighting and they also try to intervene and break the scuffle.

Act as per rules: DGCA

The DGCA issued an advisory to heads of operations of all airlines directing them to act as per rules in such cases and even use restraining devices. These devices look like handcuffs and are to be kept in aircraft cabins to be used to restrain unruly passengers of level 3 type — abusive, physically violent category. Some airlines in India like AirAsia are (already) keeping it in the aircraft cabin. The authority asked the ‘post holders’ to act and take action. “It is observed that post holders, pilots and cabin crew members have failed to take appropriate actions. Non-action/ inappropriate action/ omission by the airlines towards such untoward incidents has tarnished the image of air travel in different segments of society,” the advisory says. The watch dog has sought strict Implementation of Civil Aviation Rules 2017 (CAR).

CAR 2017

The rules grade offences into three categories and once the internal committee decides the level of offence and imposes a ban on the passenger, the decision has to be communicated to the DGCA/other airlines and the person should be put on the no-fly list. Such a passenger can be banned for a minimum of three months in case of a level 1 offence and a maximum of two years for a level 3 offence. The rules necessitate lodging an FIR only in extreme cases of aggressive behaviour by a passenger which may cause the aircraft to make an emergency landing.

The experts in wake of recent incidents seek amendment in the rules. “The present norms say that an unruly passenger will be banned from flying for 30 days till the internal committee of that particular airline decides his/her case. Meanwhile, he can fly with other airlines. It should be made more deterrent by banning him from flying with any airline. To maintain discipline and dignity of air travel, DGCA and airlines have to step up along with passengers. VIP treatments, accommodating behaviours for commercial gains have to be set aside. People dare to misbehave in Indian airline carriers because they know it’s easy to get away with while airlines like Emirates have strict punishments. It is the responsibility of the government and the industry to impose and implement strict rules against such offenders. Crew members should be better trained to handle such situations,” Retd. Capt Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation expert and former member of Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council, told Tehelka.