Why are Indians flying out of control?


It must be said that most Indian passengers do not behave badly and most Indian crews are not substandard

Over the past fortnight or so, we have been watching, hearing of or reading about extremely bad behaviour by Indians on board aircraft, mainly thanks to those ubiquitous mobile phone cameras. In the first one, it was hard to figure out who came off worse, the passenger who was reportedly rude to an Indian airline’s cabin crew member or the said staffer who totally lost her cool, contrary to all manuals of onboard behaviour, and shouted at him.

The second incident was no better; actually, it was worse as it got violent. But it was difficult to decide who was more at fault: the passenger who refused to bring his seat to the upright position—which is a standard take-off and landing protocol—or the other passenger who butted in to force the other man to comply but then progressed to hitting and punching him, watched helplessly by the crew of the foreign airline as well as the other passengers.

The third incident, reported only a few days ago though it happened in November, was the most mind-boggling. A drunk man urinated on a woman passenger on India’s recently re-privatised national carrier and then remained standing there, flying unzipped until another passenger—not the crew—told him to return to his seat. Going by the account of the lady who went through this ordeal, the crew’s reaction was less than professional if not totally unhelpful.

The fourth, barely a day after the third one came to light, also involved the same airline and another similar act by a drunken man on the blanket of a woman passenger. This time the pilot informed the authorities, and the offender was collared once the plane landed in Delhi. But he was apparently let off after he gave a written apology to the lady following a “mutual compromise”. What does that mean, exactly? How is that acceptable behaviour?

Besides the old “don’t you know who I am” argument to assert might is right, bad behaviour, all too often, is rationalised in a myriad of ways. So is unprofessional conduct. Most times it is blamed on stress—emotional, financial etc—and the focus shifts to mitigation not culpability. That can be doubly dangerous in aircraft as safety depends equally on compliance by passengers and calm competence from the crew. Both, it seems, are on the wane these days.

Uncooperative, rude, unruly and drunk passengers are not rare. Airlines are supposed to train their crew—in the cockpit and the cabin—to handle such people firmly but calmly (rather than with loud words) but not let them off the hook either, if need be. Getting on with a flight rather than delaying is what the rest of the passengers want, so speedy and peaceful handling is preferred. But a line has to be drawn somewhere for both passengers and crew.

For the passengers, refusal to comply cannot be tolerated, and a loss of control or composure for the crew is unacceptable. Indian passengers are used to surly or cold behaviour from many—mainly western—foreign airlines (even in business and first class) and mistake the softer attitude of most Indian cabin crew as licence to disobey, order them about or be disruptive. That cannot be condoned: those who violate rules must be deplaned and put on no-fly lists.

But zero-tolerance cuts both ways. The video of a cabin attendant shouting at a passenger—even if to rightly assert that she’s not his servant—was shocking. Such breakdown of composure from a staffer supposedly trained to handle far greater crises in the air with equanimity should make any passenger wary of flying on such airlines. The helpless inaction of the foreign crew when one Indian passenger was hitting another was equally unacceptable.

That the drunk man’s actions in November were not captured on a phone camera and posted online is unusual. Was the lady’s plight unknown to other passengers? The sight of any man about to relieve himself while standing in an aisle would have attracted preventive action? As the man’s actions fall foul of several Indian laws relating to behaviour towards women, the crew should have certainly not let the man go home unimpeded, thereby condoning his act.

In fact, the first thing the crew should have done is offered his seat to the lady—after helping her clean up, of course. The man being allowed to complete the long-haul flight on his own seat (also in business class) was patently unfair as the lady had to sit on a narrow crew jump seat for the next six hours. And such seats face the passengers so her embarrassment (being clad in an airline sleeping suit as her clothes were urine-drenched) must have been huge.

The airline says he was put on a 30-day flight ban as per the rules—before or after she sent a complaint letter to the chairman is unknown—but surely keeping the incident under wraps hardly serves the broader purpose? What happened to the urine-doused airline seat is also a matter of concern. Was it replaced? That would mean taking that aircraft out of service till it is done, a tall ask considering the airline’s inadequate fleet and well-known “lack of spares”.

In the case of the second drunken man there is no mention of a 30-day flying ban—which is utterly inexplicable. His behaviour was as bad as the earlier man’s but he was not banned simply because he apologised? What signal does it send to other potential drunkards on future international flights? Is “Do whatever you like but don’t forget to say sorry later so that you get away scot-free” the operative mantra? How many other such incidents have been hushed up?

A quick-fix solution would be to stop serving liquor on board on international flights but unruly behaviour even happens within India wherein drinking is disallowed anyway. The better solution is an assertion and demonstration of strong action against all passengers—and crew—who do not adhere to the rules of behaviour pertaining to them. And such action has to be fast and made public so that both know the consequences of stepping out of line.

Discipline is a dirty word in the 21st century, redolent of school and the military; maybe self-control is a better alternative as it puts the responsibility on the person than on an external authority. If rules are clearly enunciated—such as fastening seat belts or not using mobile phones during take-off and landing for passengers, and handling all issues calmly and equitably for the crew—then these should not need to be enforced if everyone stays in control.

It must be said that most Indian passengers do not behave badly and most Indian crews are not substandard. But if we pride ourselves on being the inheritors of an ancient civilisation with respect for rule of law, it behoves each of us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. There are many spheres in India in which we need to do so but we can at least start with a relatively small and therefore manageable one—air travel. Exercise self-control or face strict action.

The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.

This article originally appeared on https://www.firstpost.com/ and was reproduced here with permission


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