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Airlines gear up to tackle unruly passengers

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 Tarun Shukla

New Delhi: IndiGo, India’s biggest passenger airline by market share, has started carrying nylon handcuffs, called arresters, to restrain unruly passengers. SpiceJet Ltd too is reviewing its processes after a slight increase in such instances.

While there hasn’t been a big jump in unruly behaviour, incidents have gone up in proportion with increase in air traffic. India’s airline passenger traffic has been growing steadily with nearly 60 million flying annually, compared with 15 million a decade ago.

“It certainly happens more than it should,” said Sanjiv Kapoor, chief operating officer, SpiceJet. Passengers tend to get disruptive and even abusive over what anywhere else would be minor service delivery issues, though only a minority of passengers behave in this manner, Kapoor said.

“In the West, it is usually due to drunkenness. In India, it is more to do with passengers simply not willing to follow crew instructions, or accept crew explanations for whatever situation is at hand, whether it is a delay or any other issue, passengers tend to create a scene,” he said.

“Arresters have been brought in recently. Earlier we used to use scarves and ties,” said an IndiGo official who declined to be named. Each flight has two arresters, which IndiGo calls Tuff-Ties, and a Tie-Cut to remove the restraint.

These devices are used only when there is a physical assault on the crew, on a fellow passenger or if there is a threat to the aircraft.

“The process starts with a verbal warning. The second warning is a red card which states the repercussions of misbehaving,” the official said. If the first two steps do not work, the next step is to restrain the passengers with the help of able-bodied passengers.

An IndiGo spokesperson confirmed that the airline has started carrying Tuff-Ties and maintained that “the Tokyo convention of 1975 empowers the commander of the flight to take extreme measures in order to protect the safety of the aircraft and its passengers, crew and cargo. Hence, the decision to handcuff a passenger is not privy to litigation”.

In extreme cases, SpiceJet said, it uses modified seat belts to restrain passengers and is looking at ways to strengthen its processes.

To be sure, a passenger is restrained only as a last resort, as passengers can take the airline to court, which means a long legal battle, said a private airline executive who has dealt with the subject in detail but asked not to be named.

“On board, the only rule the crew has is very hazy, as they are told to calm the customer and inform the captain,” this executive said. “In America they will finish you off if you touch a crew member. I would like to see one passenger who has been jailed in India. It doesn’t happen. Aircraft rules does not mean DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) will be the court. We need better guidelines.”

“It certainly gets reported to the police and security. What happens thereafter depends case to case,” Kapoor said on whether legalities come in the way of taking tougher action.

A DGCA official said the regulator will look into the matter of unruly passengers as and when such cases come up. He too declined to be named.

Air India and Jet Airways refused comment.

There is another problem peculiar to India, said Jet Airways’s former CEO Steve Forte.

“In Jet Airways, most of the problems with verbal abuse were from politicians who habitually showed up late for the flight to demonstrate to the rest of the people how busy and important they were. And they always expected the airline to wait for them. Since at Jet we placed a lot of emphasis on on-time departure, we finally started leaving them on the ground, screaming, but on the ground,” Forte said.

“But historically, passengers who have a history of violence on a flight do not find much sympathy with the courts and judges,” he said.

India should have a no-fly list, according to Devesh Agarwal, a frequent flier who runs Bangalore Aviation, a website.

“Any unruly passenger should be put on a no-fly list and prohibited from flying any airline for a period of one or more years,” Agarwal said. “We can look at Europe and the UK air rage laws for guidance.”

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