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BW Businessworld

The Art Of Making News

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Air india pilots — it would seem — cannot resist making news. After a week of being in the limelight due to their strike to protest pay cuts, the airline's pilots and cabin crew find themselves in the news yet again. This time, ahem, for slightly different reasons.

It appears that last week on an Air India flight from Sharjah to Delhi, the pilot and co-pilot got into a scuffle with a young air hostess and other cabin crew. The lady has apparently complained that the pilots requested some kind of "personal favours" from her — clearly on board the aircraft — but she refused. The air hostess claims she was assaulted by the pilots (she had injuries and bruises on her hand and a joint commissioner of police subsequently confirmed that she had indeed been assaulted after a medical examination was conducted) and pushed out of the cockpit. What happened within the confines of the cockpit will only be known once Air India's management conducts one of its never-ending "inquiries" into the incident, but this is the point where the story gets quite bizarre.

The air hostess left the cockpit and it appears from reports that she — presumably in the heat of the moment — was followed by the two pilots into the passenger cabin. Eyewitnesses told the media that the two pilots left the cockpit unmanned (not unheard of but certainly an uncommon occurrence, which Air India now denies) though it is not clear for what duration.

In the cabin, it appears the pilots and the cabin crew exchanged "punches and hurled abuses" at each other in full view of all 106 passengers. There is no confirmation of this, but if newspaper reports are to be believed, one of the pilots even went on to threaten to land the aircraft in Pakistan, which the aircraft was flying over (what exactly he hoped to achieve by carrying out such a threat is not very evident!).

Going by only what the police commissioner has said, one's sympathies would tend to lie with the air hostess in this case. Whatever may have been the provocation, there would be little to justify her being hurt. Was the fracas fuelled by alcohol? If not, the DGCA needs to keep a tab on the mental stability of the pilots just like it does physical checks.

A case has been registered against the two pilots on suspicion of committing "assault or use of criminal force against a woman with intent to outrage her modesty" — a pretty serious charge by any yardstick. In their defence, the pilots are reported to have made a counter-claim, saying the harassment allegation was an attempt to "divert attention from accusations of misconduct against a male flight attendant".

The pilots have also tried to downplay the incident by arguing that the safety of passengers was never compromised, which in my view is a ridiculous argument. Do they think the staff should be wrestling in the aisles instead of manning the cockpit? Can someone inform them that emergencies usually occur without warning? Are they unaware of the Aeroflot Flight 593 incident? The pilot let his son sit in the pilot's seat who unknowingly disengaged the auto pilot. The aircraft crashed killing all on board because the response to an emergency could not be controlled.

This is not to argue that passengers who behave badly should be allowed to get away (the passenger whose unruly conduct on an Indigo flight caused practically a national emergency, is now out of custody), but in the case of pilots and crew, they have more of an obligation to behave while on duty. It is not just a matter of safety, but also of socially acceptable conduct. 

If and when it ever reaches any kind of firm conclusion since everyone is now in the fray — Air India is promising a "regular departmental inquiry" the Delhi police is investigating, National Commission of Women is probing it and a five-member all-women committee of the airline is also examining the sexual harassment charge — it is quite conceivable and probably quite justified that the civil aviation ministry could use this incident to terminate the services of all those involved in it on the grounds that it has brought massive disrepute to the carrier.

What further can this airline do to dig itself deeper into a grave? It has been in the news in the past few weeks for a strike, a rat on board, a fire and now a fight between crew members. One can forgive the airline's huge losses, its stupid agreements with unions (which we pay for through our taxes), its cancellations, delays and often shoddy service, but this kind of incident is truly a cause for national shame.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-10-2009)