Union civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju on Thursday apologised for the recent incidents were Air India flights were delayed to accommodate VIPs.
"We apologise to all passengers who have faced inconvenience. We will avoid such incidents in future, will ensure such incidents don't recur," Raju said at a press conference after the incidents involving union minister Kiren Rijiju and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis raised a storm of protests.
Rijiju was accused of delaying a flight at Leh on June 24 and then taking the place of three passengers, including a child, who were asked to disembark. Fadnavis allegedly delayed a flight from Mumbai to New York on June 29 to accomodate a member of his tour party.
"If there is violation of rules, we will ask why it happened and that it should not happen," Raju said.
At the same time, the minister also sought to brush aside the matter.
"These things routinely happen with all the airlines, not just Air India. In fact, they have been operating on time and serving the Indian skies well," he said, while taking a jibe that his colleagues were actually complaining that they were missing flights due to Air India's on-time performance.
Union minister of state for home Rijiju too apologised to the passengers who were offloaded to make way for him.
"What happened was wrong. I must apologise to the off-loaded passengers. They deserve to be treated properly," Rijiju told NDTV after he faced accusations of misusing his VIP privilege.
Rijiju and Jammu and Kashmir deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh arrived late at the aiport after attending the "Sindhu Darshan" festival in the morning. The flight which was scheduled at 10.20am finally took off at 11.12am.
The apologies came after the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) sought a report from the civil aviation ministry on recent incidents of alleged abuse of privilege involving him and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
"PMOIndia asks Ministry of Civil Aviation for a report on delay in #AirIndia flights on account of VIP travels in the recent past," Press Information Bureau chief Frank Noronha tweeted, after allegations that Rijiju and Fadnavis had caused inconvenience to passengers of the national carrier owing to their VIP status.
Earlier Rijiju had said he was unaware that three passengers were de-boarded to accommodate him.
"I can't be blamed for the happening as the Leh administration didn't inform me on what basis they were making the changes to accommodate me on the Air India flight. It is obvious that if I was informed about the changes by causing problems to passengers, then I would have definitely stopped it from happening," he told IANS earlier.
The 43-year old minister also refuted allegations that he caused the delay saying the flight was supposed to leave at 11.40 and that it was rescheduled without prior notice.
Nirmal Singh also denied there was any untoward incident saying, “Nobody forced passengers, a request was made that it was an urgent duty he had to go for, and they agreed.”
Fadnavis too had denied holding up the Mumbai-New York flight on June 29 but Air India confirmed the delay citing different reasons.
"The flight AI-191 of 29th of June 15 was delayed by total 57 minutes. The delay was partly due to technical/operational reasons and also due to ATC (air traffic control)," an airline official said in a statement.
The incidents have been widely condemned by civil society and opposition parties who have demanded Prime Minister Narendra Modi respond to the accusations that his party colleagues were misusing their power.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi should break his silence on the VIP culture of his ministers. It is a serious matter,” Congress leader PL Punia said. Aam Aadmi Party leader Dilip Pandey demanded Rijiju apologise and said he couldn’t delay flights on account of his powerful position.
(With inputs from agencies)