Air India was on Friday slapped with a penalty of Rs 30 lakh and its pilot’s licence suspended for three months by the India’s civil aviation regulator in connection with a flyer urinating on an elderly woman passenger in a New York-Delhi flight two months ago.
According to an official statement, the DGCA said the financial penalty of Rs 30 lakh has been imposed on Air India and Director-in-flight services “for violation of applicable Civil Aviation Requirements (CARs)” while the Pilot-In-Command saw his licence suspended for three months for “failing to discharge his duties” as per the Aircraft Rules, 1937 and applicable CARs.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has also imposed a penalty of Rs three lakh on Air India’s Director of in-flight services for “failing to discharge her duties”. This is the first time that the DGCA has imposed a penalty on an airline for unruly passenger behaviour onboard a flight.
The views of aviation industry experts on the DGCA action was diverse with a section questioning whether the regulator has the mandate to take such actions as its primary role is to ensure safety while another felt the Accountable Manager escaped without a punishment was not fair. They felt that more than the quantum of penalty, the incident and punishment have left a scar on Tata’s reputation and professionalism.
In a statement on Friday, an Air India spokesperson said it has received the DGCA order. “We respectfully acknowledge the gaps in our reporting and are taking relevant steps to ensure that the same are addressed. We are also strengthening our crews’ awareness and compliance with policies on the handling of incidents involving unruly passengers,” it said.
The enforcement actions for violation of applicable norms came after studying the written responses to show cause notices issued to the Tata-owned airline and its personnel connected to the incident that took place on November 26 last year. The airline reported the incident to DGCA only on January 4.
Shankar Mishra, who is accused of urinating on the woman and presently in judicial custody, has been banned from flying for a period of four months by Air India, following a probe by a three-member internal committee headed by a former district as mandated by rules.
Commenting on the regulator’s actions, Mark D Martin, CEO of Martin Consulting, told DH the DGCA needs to start behaving like a dignified, mature aviation safety regulator like EASA and the FAA and should give up arbitrariness.
He said imposing punitive actions for cabin hygiene and standards related to the one like on Air India flight goes against every single objective of the DGCA, which in effect is a safety oversight agency and an airworthiness directorate. “The DGCA’s job is in the policy field and not policing through arbitrary rapping airlines on knuckles for incidents that in no way compromised safety of the flight,” he said.
Capt Shakti Lumba, former Vice President Operation of IndiGo and previous Executive Director of Alliance Air, said the DGCA order pinning blame on the pilot-in-command, Director-in-flight and the airline was “nominal” but the Accountable Manager “got off scot free”.
While Martin believes that it would not have an impact on the brand reputation, saying “even worse incidents” that necessitated emergency landing, Lumba was of the view “heads must roll” as the incident and punishment “have left a scar” on Tata’s “reputation and professionalism”.
Harish Bijoor, a brand-strategy expert and founder of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, said the fine is a rap on the knuckle of the brand and its many participants and the quantum of fine is an indication of seriousness of the event.
“It is an instance of bad reputation for Air India for sure. At the same time, it is also a closure of sorts. Air India must take a deep breath and move on with thorough training, revamp and reorientation of its people. Brand Air India has suffered a hurt and a deep gash but even this shall heal.”
Alok Anand, Chairman and CEO of Acumen Aviation, acknowledged that the punishment was “good” but he felt it was “arbitrary” as there was no clarity on the basis on which penalty was fixed.
“The worst culprit apart from the accused — though the matter sub-justice and assuming that he would be proven guilty — is surely the airlines and DGCA has taken good action to set an example,” he said.
Warning that there will be more such incidents of passenger misbehaviour as the flyers’ numbers are set to increase, Anand said that airlines flying without well-drawn Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and adequate training of crew are “asking for a disaster”.
He advised airlines to manage such incidents on board. “The woman flyer should have been upgraded without doubt, the Pilot-in-Command should have come out and reassured her and finally, after landing, the offending flyer should have been handed over to CISF as this is a case of sexual harassment,” he said.
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