Josepine Roderiques (name changed on request), an air hostess with low-cost carrier GoAir, offers a nervous prayer before reporting on duty everyday. Her anxiety has nothing to do with lay-offs or bad weather — “I pray hard that we don’t have unruly passengers on board.” In the three years she’s been working, the 25-year-old has fielded everything from verbal abuse and bottom pinching, to punches and kicks from passengers.
“My worst nightmare came true on a Mumbai-Delhi flight,” says Roderiques, “when two boys who had boarded in Jaipur started running their hands between my legs. Luckily the flight supervisor moved me to the other end of the aircraft.” Roderiques, however, continues to greet every traveller with a big smile — knowing that most of them were checking her out.
“Instances of air rage happen very often on Indian carriers; unfortunately most of them go unreported. The offenders are
usually let off, with a mild warning at most,” rues Captain Vikram Yadav, general secretary of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association, who has been flying with Indian Airlines (now Air India) for eight years.
On January 17, 2008, Ved Prakash, a businessman from Jaipur, was offloaded from a Delhi-bound GoAir flight at Mumbai airport for allegedly molesting two air hostesses. He was fined Rs 1,200 and let off. A day later, the airline filed an FIR and even gave his Jaipur address to the police. But there’s been little progress on the case. If it were Europe, the passenger’s name would be entered in a database of unruly travellers, and if he repeated the offence, he would be
blacklisted and banned from by all airlines.
Unruly behaviour is common across class — be it economy, business or even flights chartered by corporate bigwigs. “Indians believe that they own the crew,” says Ulhas Chavan, who used to work as an air purser with Air India. “A business class traveller will name drop, show off his credit cards or drop a visiting card to make a pass at an air hostesses,” he says.
“The economy class traveller does not believe in sophistication. He thinks that the girl is part of the air ticket. So he does not hesitate to touch her. And Indians are the same all over. Even NRIs, settled aboard for years, treat you like a servant,” Chavan adds. Passengers, he says sadly, have even asked him to “remove my shoe”.
Abhisekh Batra (name changed), a co-pilot with a private air charter company that caters to VIPs, recounts a similar story. “Once, during the assembly polls, we were flying to Chhattisgarh. I told the guest that we could not land due to low visibility. He started abusing me and called me a glorified trucker.”
Recently, an Indian airline forced a parliamentarian off a Dubai-bound flight when he arrived late and began to abuse the captain and crew, threatening them with dire consequences. He reportedly called the pilot “a glorified driver” and even stormed into pilot’s cabin, which is a serious offence.
It’s now known what happened to him, but now the Indian aviation industry has decided to take on unruly travellers. In three recent cases of unruly behaviour, airlines have filed a police complaint. On January 30, Jet Airways’s cabin crew tied a 25-year-old man to his seat after he began throwing things at fellow travellers and tried to open the door of the Mumbai-bound flight.
“Passenger behaviour and profile has changed drastically over the years,” explains Captain R.L. Kapoor, flight safety advisor, SpiceJet. Usually a combination of persuasion and threat calms things down, but if someone gets violent, pilots seek priority landing at the nearest airport, disembark the errant passenger and handed him over to the authorities.
“Elaborate systems are in place but they need to be effectively implemented. Every stakeholder, be it the airline, cabin crew or air traffic controller, needs to be sensitised and work in a coordinated manner in an emergency,” says a former director general of civil aviation who handled the Kandahar hijacking in December 1999. Experts say passengers can also be booked under several sections of the Indian Aircraft Rules, 1973.
The problem, as always, is not one of the law alone. It is that in India, rude behaviour in public, be it on an aircraft or a restaurant, is just not considered an offence serious enough.