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The fear of being accused of sexual harassment is driving male pilots to violate a standard operating procedure (SOP), potentially putting lives in peril.
According to the SOP governing flight safety, the pilot or the co-pilot can leave the cockpit only after a member of cabin crew has been called into the flight deck. This is to ensure that if the person flying the plane suddenly falls sick, there is someone to tend to him or her and get the other pilot back urgently.
But, it turns out, many male pilots across domestic airlines have decided to keep air hostesses out of the cockpit, terrified the women will slap charges of groping or other forms of harassment on them.
"As a departure from the SOP, most of us in SpiceJet as well as in other domestic carriers have adopted a practice wherein we don't really allow the female members of the crew to enter the flight deck," a senior pilot told HT.
"The only reason being that should one of them turn around tomorrow and level seriously damaging allegations of groping, we pilots would have a lot of answering to do and may even lose our jobs even if the allegations are unsubstantiated," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several other pilots said that recent high-profile cases involving a retired judge, Justice AK Ganguly, and journalist Tarun Tejpal, have forced them to look at measures that "protect us, even though they come at the cost of flight safety."
Airlines contacted were quick to deny that any such contravention of SOP was occurring.
A SpiceJet spokesperson said: "As a procedure, the crew does go in when required. No one is afraid nor has there been any case of anything unusual happening. The idea of fear of female cabin crew is preposterous given that we have plenty of female pilots as well."
"There have never been any instances of pilots sharing any fears of asking female crew members to come inside the cockpit when one of the pilots has stepped out. Safety is paramount for IndiGo and there can be absolutely no compromise on safety," said an IndiGo spokesperson. Air India and Jet Airways did not respond.
But one pilot spoke of the need to air his fears: "I do admit and fully understand that not allowing female colleagues in have consequences from a flight safety issue, but I do deem it important enough to let our fears be known to the public at large.''
Another pilot HT spoke to said, "The new law is playing on our psyche.'' Asked if they were not scared about air hostesses complaining about the SOP being violated, he said, "We pilots are constantly discussing this issue and now believe that it is better that the air hostess complain about not being allowed entry into the cockpit than them complaining about being groped." Another pilot said they only allow cabin crew colleagues they know well and trust but are now guarded about following the SOP as a routine.