5 times Indian airlines faced heat for 'harassing' passengers

The Manu Bhaker versus Air India incident is not the first time when passengers and airline staff have been at loggerheads

5 times Indian airlines faced heat for 'harassing' passengers
Manu Bhaker (L) and the officials against whom she had levelled allegations. Image courtesy: Twitter/@realmanubhaker

Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Arjuna Awardee shooter Manu Bhaker complained of being at the receiving end of "harassment" and "humiliation" by Air India staff at the New Delhi airport on Friday (February 19). What actually happened and who is really the guilty party may be difficult to ascertain right away, but it is a fact that passengers are often not happy with the conduct of airline staff. There have been allegations of airline staff being rude, impolite and overzealous. 

Indeed most of the complaints filed by the passengers in the government's grievance redress platform relate to 'harassment of passengers/staff crew behaviour', an official ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) document revealed, according to a PTI report in 2019. 

The government's Centralised Public Grievance Redress and Monitoring System (CPGRAM) had received 3,524 complaints of harassment by airline staff, the report said. CPGRAM, established in 2007-08, is an online platform enabling the submission of grievances by aggrieved citizens to ministries/departments/organisations who scrutinise and take action for speedy and favourable redress of these grievances. 

Manu Bhaker at the airport. Image courtesy: Twitter/@realmanubhaker

In 2018, the MoCA had told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture that there was a systemic grievance redress mechanism in place and the complaints received by it are forwarded to the concerned airline to be taken up directly with the passenger as air travel is a matter of contract between the airline and the passenger.

However, the MoCA was chided by the Parliamentary panel who advised the ministry to play a more significant role than being a mere transmitter of passenger grievances to respective airlines. "The ministry should ensure that the respective airline has taken necessary action to redress the grievance within a stipulated timeframe. The ministry should also penalise the airlines in case of not solving the grievances to the satisfaction of passengers," the committee said.
   
Here are five instances when airlines in India faced the heat for 'harassing' passengers:

1. Manu Bhaker incident

Bhaker alleged that she was initially stopped from boarding her flight from Delhi to Bhopal despite possessing all the necessary papers granting permission to carry weapons on board. Bhaker, who had struck gold at the Commonwealth Games at an age of just 16 years and is the youngest Indian to win gold at the ISSF World Cup, is also one of India's strongest medal hopes at the Tokyo Olympics this year. 

In a series of tweets, in which she tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju and former Chief Minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje, Bhaker alleged that the Air India staff were treating her like "a criminal" and asking for Rs 10,200, which she termed as a bribe.

The 19-year-old shooter said she was carrying two guns and ammunition for which she had all the valid documentation and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) permit.

Bhaker, however, said that the Air India employee, whom she identified as Manoj Gupta, refused to recognise the DGCA. She also spoke against the security in charge, adding that they needed "basic training of behaviour". 

Baker later thanked Rijiju for the "strong support" that helped her to finally board the flight. Air India refuted the charges. The airline issued a statement, which it continues to pin on its Twitter page. It said, “Dear Ms Bhaker, Our Delhi Airport team has confirmed that the official at our counter had only sought for valid documents as per rules for carriage of your weapon on board. In absence of the same, legitimate specified charges for the arms were conveyed to you. No one sought a ‘bribe’ as has been alleged. You were issued boarding pass on your assurance of furnishing valid documents before boarding. Immediately after the official valid documents were shown by you at the boarding point, you were allowed to board. It may please be noted that Air India has always encouraged and respected Sportspersons and have many eminent sports legends working with us.” 

Bhaker, however, warned Air India that efforts to "save culprits" would further damage its reputation. 

It may be noted that the national carrier, sitting on a mountain of debts and losses, has from time to time been criticised over mismanagement, employee-management discord and strikes inconveniencing passengers, shoddy safety culture and scams, and damage to its public image is the last thing it needs, especially when it is so close to privatisation. 

Bhaker also alleged that her phone was taken away and photos of her being harassed were deleted. 

She tweeted again on Saturday (February 20) morning to provide details to show that neither she nor her mother was carrying extra baggage and that she had her arms licence, DGCA permission letter and NRAI (National Rifle Association of India) permission letter with her. She said the officials were unaware of the DGCA rules and that airlines did charge "bribes" mostly from shooters who went to the national championships once a year. 

Source: Twitter/@realmanubhaker

2. Airline staff manhandle elderly man

This is perhaps the most shocking incident of misbehaviour by airline staff in recent times.

It made the entire nation to sit up and take notice and forced the then IndiGo President and Wholetime Director Aditya Ghosh to apologise profusely and the airline to sack an employee and issue stern warning letters to two others. 

A passenger named Rajiv Katyal had deplaned from a Chennai-Delhi flight and was waiting for the shuttle bus at the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport on October 15, 2017. 

Katyal got into an argument with the IndiGo staff during which harsh words were exchanged. He was stopped from boarding the bus. He was pulled back by an IndiGo employee. At this, the passenger got violent. One of the IndiGo employees retaliated and pinned Katyal to the ground. 

All the while, one of the IndiGo employees was coolly videographing the incident, while another was smiling at the camera. 

The video resulted in the MoCA calling for a detailed report from IndiGo, with the then Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha calling the incident "deplorable". 

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Ghosh said in his statement that the employees involved were immediately suspended even while the probe was underway. 

The company fired Montu Kalra, a cargo employee, who shot the video. IndiGo alleged that Kalra had instigated the incident and was heard in the video shouting instructions to his junior colleagues to stop the passenger. Kalra later claimed on national television to have been victimised by the company. Initially, Kalra received sympathy as people felt that the airline had wrongly penalised a whistleblower.

However, Ghosh's said in his statement that Kalra's services were not terminated because he had shot the video, and in fact, it was not Kalra who had brought the incident to the company's attention. 

Warning letters were issued to Juby Thomas and Sahiv Sharma -- the two employees who had manhandled the passenger. Ghosh called the passenger and personally apologised to him. 

3. Pilot threatens woman, elderly mother

Captain Jayakrishna, piloting Flight 6E 806 from Chennai to Bengaluru on January 13, 2020, was alleged by journalist Supriya Nair to have utterly misbehaved with her and her 75-year-old mother. The incident tarnished the image of the domestic market leader IndiGo and the Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri himself had to intervene. 

Nair was returning with her mother from a funeral in Chennai and had pre-booked a wheelchair for her mother. Once the plane landed in Bengaluru, the duo apparently waited, but no assistance was forthcoming. They tried to alert the crew by ringing the assistance bell but were allegedly told by one of the crew members that the wheelchair could not be provided. 

Nair said that when she pointed out that the boarding pass mentioned a wheelchair, the pilot came barging out and started behaving in a very rude manner, and even threatened that he would ensure that they spent a night in jail. 

Even when the wheelchair arrived, Nair alleged that the pilot tried to stop the ground staff from taking her mother out of the aircraft, and even tried to obstruct the shuttle bus. Nair said that when her mother requested the captain to not be rude, he replied that his job was to fly and not be polite to passengers. 

The pilot threatened that he would not fly the onwards flight to Goa until the two passengers were jailed, Nair said. 

The pilot was subsequently de-rostered by the airline. 

“I requested my office to contact @IndiGo6E as soon as I saw the tweet by Ms @SupriyaUnniNair about the pilot’s behaviour with her & her 75 yr old mother in need of wheelchair assistance. The airline has informed @MoCA_GoI that the pilot has been off-rostered pending full enquiry,” Puri said on Twitter. 

4. Ground staff misbehaves with advocate's mother 

Savita Bhatia, the mother of former Supreme Court advocate Kawaljit Singh Bhatia, had a terrible experience at Delhi IGI Airport in May 2017. 

Bhatia told ANI that Upasana Bagga, an employee of the now-defunct Jet Airways, refused to let her board the plane in spite of being on time. She alleged that she was asked to pay an extra fee of Rs 5,500, but was not allowed to go even after that. 

As a result, she had to rush for the boarding, which caused her to have a panic attack and she lost consciousness. She woke up with a bleeding jaw, but nobody from the airline offered any help, Bhatia alleged. 

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Bhatia's son-in-law said that the airline had later contacted him but refused to take responsibility and made sure that they could not purchase tickets in other carriers as well.

5. PV Sindhu's 'very bad experience'

This is perhaps the most high-profile case on the list. 

The reigning world champion and Rio Olympics silver medallist complained that she had a "very bad experience" while flying from Hyderabad to Mumbai on board IndiGo Flight 6E 608 on November 4, 2017. 

“Ground staff (skipper) Mr Ajeetesh behaved very badly and rudely with me. When the air hostess Ms Ashima tried to advise him to behave properly with the passenger (me) but to my surprise he behaved very rudely with her. If this type of people work for a reputed airline like IndiGo, they will spoil their reputation,” Sindhu tweeted. 

The airline replied that the badminton superstar had boarded the flight with oversized baggage that was not fitting into the overhead storage space and was informed that the baggage would be moved to the cargo hold of the aircraft. 

The airline also said that the member of the ground staff had remained calm, according to an ANI report.