Ask Vir Ask Vir

Why did things go so wrong on the Air India flight?

When the news of the horrific incident on an Air India flight from New York first broke, most of us concentrated on the preposterous assault on a fellow passenger’s dignity.

How could this man be allowed to get away with it?


Well, the man in question is now sitting in a jail cell and will soon be prosecuted. So that concern is starting to be dealt with.


   We need to focus now on a second concern. Why was the man allowed to walk off the flight? Why does the passenger feel she was not treated with due consideration by the crew?


   Was there failure on the part of the airline?


   I don’t think anybody now disputes that the answer to that last question is yes, Air India failed the passenger. And its crew --and later, its staff on the ground—behaved badly.


   Even N Chandrasekaran the chairman of Tatas has admitted this: “We fell short of addressing this situation the way it should have been.” Air India’s new CEO Campbell Wilson has said that four cabin crew and a pilot have been de-rostered.


   We now have the account of another passenger on that flight who was sitting next to Shankar Mishra, the man who urinated on the elderly lady, and what he says is truly shocking.


   First of all, he says, he could see that Mishra was getting drunker and drunker. He called a member of the cabin crew and warned him about Mishra’s condition. No attention was paid to his warning.


   After the urinating incident happened, says the eyewitness corroborating the version of the victim/passenger, the crew made no real attempt to help the lady or to find her another seat.


   He says that as four seats in First Class were empty, he suggested that the least the airline could do was to put her in one of the empty seats. This suggestion was rejected.


   Why was it rejected? The unofficial Air India version is that the empty seats were not serviceable or that there was something wrong with them. In airline-speak, this means that the seats did not recline, that the video screens were not working, or that the reading lights were faulty.


   In the condition that the lady was in, I doubt she would be minded very much if she had not been able to watch a movie or recline her seat fully. So, I have never found this explanation terribly convincing.


   But now, we have an alternative explanation. According to the passenger sitting next to Mishra, the crew told him that only the captain had the authority to upgrade the passenger and that he was resting and could not be disturbed.


   “Could not be disturbed”?


   Does the plane have to catch fire before they wake the captain up? Surely this was a serious enough issue to interrupt the big man’s sleep.


  "In the public sector, you learn to treat your seniors with undue deference if not reverence (“we can’t disturb the captain”), and to try and hush up everything."

   Any cabin supervisor who decided otherwise (assuming that this account is accurate --- and the eyewitness has no reason to lie) should be terminated (assuming due process upholds this version of events).


   Worse was to follow. When Mishra arose from his drunken stupor and said he was sorry, the crew arranged for him to confront the woman he had urinated on. The poor elderly lady who was in shock was in no condition to be subjected to such a meeting and says she got the impression that the crew wanted her to accept the apology and treat the matter as over and done with.


   In that situation, she seems to have agreed to accept his apology. Much later, when the story broke, Air India’s defence was that it did not report the incident because it felt that both sides had “settled the matter”.


   There are two issues here. The first is the decision of the crew to bring the passengers together and to put pressure on the obviously distressed woman to settle. This is terrible. But what is worse is that over a month later, somebody senior in the Air India management said that the airline treated this as a settlement.


   In which service industry do you allow a passenger to urinate on a woman and then push the shaken woman into confronting her abuser so you can try and force a settlement? And in which responsible company do senior management figures regard the matter as closed because of this kind of settlement?


   I can see the argument for de-rostering the crew. But should the buck stop there?


   And there is more. The woman says she later received no response from Air India till she wrote to the chairman of Tatas. And the passenger who was an eyewitness (who says he was upset by the way in which Mishra was allowed to walk away) wrote a two-page letter of complaint to Air India and heard nothing back from the airline.


   I have no idea who the complaint went to. But whoever sat on it deserves to be investigated and held accountable.


   The management failure extended to Air India’s response when the story hit the papers. A responsible corporation would have said “we are shocked by the incident, express our regret and anguish and will work with the police to punish the guilty.” It would also have offered to make it up to the lady by giving her and her family free first-class tickets to a destination of their choice. (And this would have cost Air India nothing because as we saw in this case, First Class is usually not full.)


   Instead, the airline resorted to cover-my-ass tactics like saying that the woman had not made any complaint and that it was simply a matter between two passengers. As pressure grew, they declared that they would not let Mishra fly for 30 days, a punishment that was so laughably inadequate that whoever thought of it should have his or her head examined.


   Only later, when Air India had lost all control of the narrative did the chairman of Tatas issue his statement. He should have done it right when the news broke.


   Why did things go so wrong? I do not absolve the Tatas because the incident happened on their watch. But I also accept that it will take a while for them to change the public sector mindset of Air India’s management and staff.


   In the public sector, you learn to treat your seniors with undue deference if not reverence (“we can’t disturb the captain”), and to try and hush up everything. Far better to settle issues at the ground level and force compromises there than to follow a process and insist on reporting wrongdoing and abuse to the authorities.


   That has become the mentality of Air India employees.


   The new Air India CEO has now issued instructions that crew are to report this sort of misbehaviour and abuse and not to try and effect their own little settlements. But it is sad that this needs to be said at all.


   In the years since JRD Tata was sacked as chairman of Air India by third rate politicians (in this case, Morarji Desai), Air India broke free of its Tata moorings and became just another government department.


   I am sure that under Tata ownership, the airline will get new planes, start flying on new routes and continue to improve its on-time performance. That’s the easy part.


   Changing the public sector mindset is the difficult part. And that will take much longer.



Posted On: 09 Jan 2023 07:53 PM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi