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To Board Or Not To Board? The Indigo Imbroglio

The disabled must get their dignity and respect. But then business too should not always be maligned and mauled. Fifty-fifty

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This is truly a case where Fifty-Fifty is a valid verdict. The question is whether an airline should hold up nearly 150 passengers for one passenger. But then the bigger question is what if the one passenger in question is a handicapped or specially-abled child? What should take precedence? Punctuality? Or compassion?  

Last week, exactly something like this happened when a specially-abled child (some reports say adolescent) was barred at Ranchi airport from boarding a flight as he was in “a state of panic”. As the boy was prohibited from boarding the airline's Ranchi-Hyderabad flight on Saturday, his parents -- who were with him -- also decided to not enter the plane.

The whole incident came to light when a passenger, one Manisha Gupta, detailed out the incident on LinkedIn.

She reported that on Saturday 7 May, at the Ranchi airport, an adolescent with special needs, reported for check-in with his family but he was apparently quite distraught. “The exhaustion of the drive to the airport and then the stress of security check has sent him into the throes of hunger, thirst, anxiety and confusion. His parents obviously knew how to handle his meltdown - with patience, cajoling, stern-ness, many hugs,” she mentioned in the post. By the time the boarding began, the child had been fed and given his medicines. The hope obviously was that he would calm down but he continued to be aggressive and difficult.  

Manisha Gupta’s post continues, “Then we witnessed the full display of brute authority and power. The IndiGo (InterGlobe Aviation Ltd) staff declared that the child would not be allowed to take the flight because he was a risk to other passengers," she writes. “The Indigo manager also said something on lines of 'behaviours such as this, and that of drunk passengers, deems them unfit to travel',” she adds.

Manisha goes on to say that  other passengers opposed the Indigo manager, with much shouting and swearing but the Indigo team did not relent and did not take  the child and his parents aboard the flight. Many passengers apparently demanded to see the rule book.  

Ms. Gupta further says that, “They held up their mobile phones with news articles, and Twitter posts on supreme court judgments on how no airline could discriminate against passengers with disabilities. There was a delegation of doctors that was taking the same flight. They offered to provide full support to the child and his parents, if any health episode were to occur mid-air,” but the IndiGo staff did not change their decision of barring the child from taking the flight.

IndiGo on Monday 9 May put their own version, “In view of the safety of passengers, a specially-abled child could not board the flight with his family on May 7, as he was in a state of panic.” The ground staff apparently waited for him to calm down till the last minute but to no avail. After the flight departed, the airline apparently made the family comfortable by providing them a hotel stay and they, including the specially-abled child, flew the next morning to their destination. For good effect, Indigo also apologized. “We regret the inconvenience caused to the passengers. IndiGo prides itself on being an inclusive organisation, be it for employees or its customers; and over 75,000 specially-abled passengers fly with IndiGo every month," its statement said.

The moot question is who is right and who is not?

The specially-abled child’s case is pretty strong. Being denied boarding was surely a case of discrimination. So much so that the apex child rights body in the country, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, has asked the Jharkhand police o to register an FIR against IndiGo for barring a specially-abled child from boarding a flight. NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kanoongo has also asked the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to initiate an inquiry in the matter and take necessary action against the airline and its manager. The Commission is of the opinion that there was prima facie violation of Section 7 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, which is cognisable in nature. Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia too has joined the chorus saying that no human being should have to go through this and he himself is investigating the incident.

But let me, in all fairness, argue on the side of the airline too. The child was obviously panicked, if not actually hysterical. He was really not fit to travel. Had he been allowed aboard he could have created problems mid-flight – created a commotion, perhaps get violent. Any such incident may have been then difficult to handle in the air. It could then have created a situation not easy to handle inconveniencing, if not endangering, other passengers. Who knows? So the airline was only erring on the side of caution – both in the interest of the child, and of the other flyers.  

But the matter seems to have become both emotional and political for now. The rights of persons with disabilities are being constantly trampled upon – the Ranchi incident and all the indignation that has followed is just a result of all the frustrations that have been building up – and Indigo have just become the fall guys.  

In this case, though many would disagree, I would give Indigo the benefit of the doubt. The child did calm down by the next morning and took the next flight. The airline was not really discriminating – they were just being extra careful. In further atonement, I believe Ronojoy Dutta, CEO of Indigo has gone on record to say, “We offer our sincere regrets to the affected family for the unfortunate experience and as a small token of our appreciation of their lifelong dedication would like to offer to purchase an electric wheelchair for their son.” Methinks the matter should be allowed to rest here from.  

Both sides are right in their own way. The disabled must get their dignity and respect. But then business too should not always be maligned and mauled. Fifty-fifty.  

Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Managing Director of ad agency Rediffusion. He is also CEO of the Punjab CSR Authority, a job he does pro bono.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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