Thursday, January 19, 2023

Pitfalls of flying

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

The ever-welcoming Maharajah is wincing! He’s bemused and anguished.

Since word spread of the news of two separate incidents on board the carrier’s international flights, he has had to firefight, provide clarifications, and apologise to the victims for an offence committed by two men seemingly not in their senses, misbehaving in public as no sane or a fully conscious person would ever even think of doing.

Not ever in the Maharajah’s flying past has he had to witness this sort of a spectacle and at such close intervals. Or perhaps such occurrences went unnoticed by the travelling public and the wider world. After all, the world then was free from the ever-prying eyes of social media.

A drunk man urinates at Delhi airport departure gate

Social media channels are not making it any easier for the airline as news of the incidents continue to do the rounds.

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Social media

Incidents reported by travellers on social media and news hungry media lapping it all up make things rather uneasy and difficult for airline managements. 

Anything and everything out of the ordinary is promptly reported and relayed across the world these days. 

The carrier certainly wouldn’t have wanted this to happen to it. No airline would want such dramas in its cabin. Especially at a time when it’s going through an image makeover. 

In the past, he has had to face ugly situations, even stomach insults.  Arguments or handle fisticuffs every now and then from an irate guest or two after a drink too many. But now this takes the cake. Not one but two instances of passengers answering the call of nature in the aircraft cabin! And there’s social media to tom-tom all this to the four corners of the globe. 

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Flying, no luxury

Flying is no longer a luxury. Passengers are cooped for long hours in the most trying conditions. And this manifests itself in stress and physical and mental exhaustion.

You don’t have to take an international flight to see how desperate people are, trying to control themselves, almost as if holding on to dear life. 

The rush to the airport toilets on alighting from the plane is understandable. Cramped tightly into seats as they are, six and more to a row, passengers would rather take the trouble of holding on and use the airport toilets than the facilities in the plane.

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Shrinking toilets 

Toilets in aircraft are shrinking in size by the day. They are becoming inversely proportional to the size of aircraft.

Even the most wide-bodied aircraft such as Boeing’s Dreamliner and 777 have toilets where you can barely stand. A slightly over-built person has to literally squeeze in and out of the facilities. They are often dirty and found not fit for use after a few hours in the air. Not that this should permit passengers to behave the way they did in the two instances. A leak in the cabin in full view of others is atrocious. 

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Offender booked

The first incident, on November 26 last year, happened on a New York-Delhi flight.  The offender has been arrested on a complaint by the victim, an elderly woman co-passenger. The incident is believed to have taken place in the business class of the flight where, paradoxically, conditions are not so bad as in economy. In less than two weeks of this incident has come the news of another passenger, this time on the Paris-Delhi route, wetting the blanket of a fellow passenger, also a woman.  

In both incidents, the perpetrators are believed to have been in an inebriated state, which brings us to the point should flyers be served alcohol at all if they can’t hold their drink. 

Drink and drama  

They start with small shots. And as the drink does magic, exploding inside the brain, nothing can stop them from the next and the next. It’s as the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you”. And can one forget the Bard in ‘Macbeth’: “Drink sir, is a great provoker of three things… nose painting, sleep and urine…”

Does all this warrant a review of the policy for drinks served on board the flight? How much is enough? One drink too many for a person is not necessarily so for another. So, it’s each to his own.

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There are a variety of issues inside a plane in the air. Civilised behaviour is of paramount importance. No one ought to be inconvenienced just for the pleasures of one or a few individuals. 

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Report offence

Individual whims and fancies must not be tolerated. They cannot be allowed in public places. More so on board an aircraft. First and foremost, comes safety. It cannot be compromised. Everything else is secondary. A drunk man or woman is most likely to pay no heed to safety or instructions, endangering hundreds of lives on board.

The menace, for want of a better word, needs to be curbed. It is true that such crimes can and need to be controlled through sheer self-discipline and, of course, by handing out the strictest of punishments. Remember how the smoking ban was imposed. It is total, controlled and nobody dare flout its ban on board the aircraft or at an airport’s public space. 

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US introduced sky marshals to combat skyjacking and terrorist threats. An option is to have trained unarmed personnel positioned at entry points to help identify potential troublemakers – read those inebriated and not in control of themselves – and stop them from boarding the aircraft.

A revised alcohol policy can be considered. Even if a total ban is not quite practical, there can be a regulated system with a limited and restricted drink service, or have a policy of steep pricing for on-board drinks.

When the open skies policy was introduced in India in the nineties, private carriers such as ModiLuft, which ceased operations in 1996, introduced liquor service on board and the mad scramble to get drinks served became a nightmare that had to be seen to be believed. Civil aviation authorities put an end to the practice following instances of fights and mayhem in the air.

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Nothing can be a fool-proof system. What can you do to a person who walks in drunk, having imbibed at the airport bar or wherever.

An alert, better trained cabin crew and a responsible captain can and should play a responsible part in the smooth conduct of a flight.

Catch the bull by the horn

Commercial interests ought not take precedence and instead of cover ups of inappropriate and violent behaviour, airlines must report them on landing. Hand offenders over to law enforcement authorities at the first available opportunity.

There has been a call to make all this and more a part of standard operating procedures and it is the moment propitious to amend the DGCA’s Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) of 2017with more teeth to handle such incidents and unruly passengers. 

Hushing up incidents and light punishments are no deterrence. The perpetrators are educated and influential people. Letting them go scot-free is not catching the bull by the horn.

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Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"

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