GIVEN HOW PUBLIC sector airline Air India was quick to file a police complaint against Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad after the latter beat up an airline staffer when he couldn’t get a business class seat— that the flight didn’t have a business-class section was a minor detail— and the events after that, the government’s abrupt climb-down was unfortunate.
While Gaikwad was put on an unofficial no-fly list despite his being an MP and belonged a party that was an alliance partner—no matter how uneasy— of the government, aviation ministerAshok Gajapathi Raju followed this up by refusing to back down in Parliament even after Shiv Sena MPs tried to corner him on what they felt was unfair targeting of the MP.The government, Raju said,was keen to resolve the matter so that Gaikwad could fly again, but it was up to him to make that happen—the implicit threat was that Gaikwad could remain on the no-fly list for a long time if he did not apologise.While Gaikwad’s ‘apology’in Parliament was really a farce since he made it clear he was not apologising to the airline/staffer and wanted an inquiry to ascertain who was to blame, the letter to Raju was only marginally better. Sadly, instead of insisting on a proper apology,the ministry of civil aviation advised Air India to withdraw the unofficial ban on Gaikwad flying—what made this all the more unfortunate was that, since assaulting a public servant is punishable by law, Air India stood a good chance of getting courts to rule in its favour.
Going by the new penalties Air India has just put in place, however, it appears the government is serious about ensuring our MPs, among others, don’t get awaywith this in future.While saying that even a roadside hotel has a‘rights of admission reserved’ sign, Air India has said it needs a policy to handle such unruly passengers.Apart from Gaikwad who delayed the flight by 90 minutes by fighting with Air India staff, an internal circular cites the instance of TMC MP Dola Sen who delayed a flight by 39 minutes after her invalid mother was not allowed to sit in the row along the emergency exit—while booking the flight, had the MP said her mother required a wheelchair, the emergency exit rows would automatically have been declared out-of-bounds—and also YSR Congress MP Midhun Reddy who assaulted an Air India officer at Tirupati since he was not allowed to board the plane as he arrived late.Under the new plan,apart from filing an FIR/police-complaint and assessing the damage to property, a financial penalty of `5 lakh is to be levied for any delay up to one hour,a `10 lakh for a delay of 1-2 hours and `15 lakh for delays above that.The real test, now,will be to see how strictly Air India and other airlines enforce the rule since, while the instances of Gaikwad-type violence are not as common, MPs are known to have,on more than one occasion,held up planes to suit their convenience.Such delays need to be called out,and airlines encouraged not to disguise it as a technical delay or some other fault. Air India has been given the power to act. The onus is now on it to do so.