Saturday, October 20, 2012

An Unnecessary Airport Drama

Watching the events at the Trivandrum Airport yesterday on TV, I was reminded of an old story. Just after a flight took off from Mexico City a man rushed into the cockpit brandishing a pistol. He told the pilot ‘I’m highjacking the plane. Take it to Miami, Florida’. The surprised pilot said, ‘But this flight is to Miami.’ The passenger shook his head and responded, ‘Twice before they said that, but it was highjacked to Havana.’  

What happened at Trivandrum was something like this. Air India’s flight from Abu Dhabi to Cochin could not land at its destination because of poor visibility on the runway. After hovering for some time it was rerouted to Trivandrum. Three other flights were also diverted from Cochin around that time.

On landing at Trivandrum around 6.30 a.m., the passengers revealed the true Mallu character. They refused to disembark and wanted the flight to be taken to Cochin. The Captain, a lady with 22 years experience, four of it as Commander on international flights, explained that the plane had to be refueled and a new crew had to takeover.

Somebody said that Air India was planning to send them to Cochin by buses. That spread among the passengers. The take off from Abu Dhabi had been delayed by two and a half hours. Then there was the diversion. The prospect of four hours bus ride made them furious.

Reportedly, four people rushed into the cockpit and insisted that the flight be taken to Cochin. The Captain said that her time was over and she could not continue the flight. The men threatened her and even killing her was mentioned. They refused to let her disembark until another pilot came to replace her.

The situation was apparently bad and the Captain sent a highjack alarm. Whether that was necessary is being questioned. Within minutes the security personnel surrounded the aircraft and boarded. Finally the crisis was resolved and the flight took off to Cochin at 2 p.m. with a new crew. Even a bus ride would have reached the passengers to Cochin before that.

We cannot expect the air travelers to read the small print on their tickets. But there is something called commonsense. Let us look at a few relevant points here:
1. A pilot starts working much before operating a flight. There are several formalities that have to be taken care of. A delay is as much irritating to the crew as it is to the passengers.
2. The plane was taken to Trivandrum not because the Captain wanted to go there. The flight had to be diverted due to bad weather at its destination.
3. Before the plane can be airborne again several checks have to be made and fuel filled. These take time.
4. There is a limit to the time a pilot can continuously operate a flight. This is a safety precaution. An exhausted pilot is a risk to the passengers. Apparently, the Captain of this flight had completed her time and had to hand over to a new Commander.
5. The rule is that no one can enter the cockpit without permission.
6. Threatening the pilot was again breaking the law.
7. The Commander has total responsibility and authority in the plane.
8. Passengers complained that food and beverages were not supplied on time and air-conditioning was off during their ‘siege’ of the aircraft. Provisions are carried aboard on a flight to flight basis. The stock had to be replenished. That takes time. The prevailing confusion could have delayed the process. Finally this was taken care of.

What the passengers should have done was to alight at Trivandrum, have their breakfast and wait while another crew took over and readied the plane for take off. If any official talked about bus ride, they could have taken up the matter with Air India and Airport authorities.

Some passengers reportedly announced after landing at Cochin, ‘Never fly this airline.’ Earlier this month there was a serious complaint that Air India was not operating enough flights to the Gulf from Kerala. The Aviation Minister interfered and diverted more aircraft to this sector.

I believe that cases have been registered against six passengers.



Happy Kitten said...

If the entire passengers in the plane say that no passengers entered the cockpit why are we still talking about this fake "terrorist" attack?

The passengers were asked to take a bus to Cochin when they reached TVM.. else the agitation would have started from Cochin airport instead of Tvm. So it is a fact that the passengers reacted only when they were told that they would need to take a bus.
It is not practical to take a bus from TVM to Cochin... they would have to waste the same amount of time they already wasted on air.

The lady over reacted. Before even giving time for the passengers to react, she should have announced just after landing that a new pilot would be replacing her. The problem would have ended there.
AirIndia has lost it's credibility over the years and no justification can save it now.

Happy Kitten said...

nd yes.. we boycotted this plane since many years... have used it only once and we just cannot take the risk of losing job or our temper :)

Nebu said...

This episode is a good example of the Mallu mentality of Inquilab Zindabad at the drop of a hat. I seriously Doubt if the same passengers would have behaved like this if it were in any other place other than Kerala/India.

2. It is high time Air India, which is constantly being financially bailed out by tax payers money, is wound up. Air travel can be and should be managed by private players.

Nebu said...

1.This episode is a classic example of the Mallu mentality of Inquilab Zindabad at the drop of a hat. I seriously Doubt if the same passengers would have behaved like this if it were in any other place other than Kerala/India.

2. It is high time Air India, which is constantly being bailed out by tax payers money, is wound up. Air travel can be and should be managed by private players.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Happy Kitten, thank you for your comments.

I am one of the persons who have watched (and experienced) with sadness the decline of an airline which India was proud of once. In my blog post I was not trying to defend Air India.

The passengers took a self defeating and uncivilized attitude. No one from Air India went on board and made any announcement of bus ride to Cochin. The Captain said that another pilot would take the flight to Cochin.

The Civil Aviation Minister said the same day that the Commander pressed the ‘general alert’ button and not the ‘hijack alert’ button, and that passengers had entered the cockpit. At least two witnesses have confirmed this to the police yesterday. Of course, the voice recorders and cameras would provide vital information. Political moves are already on to save the six accused from punishment.

The very next day the Doha-Cochin-Calicut flight of the same carrier was terminated at Cochin ‘due to technical snag’. The passengers protested on the runway. They were taken to Calicut in another plane.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Nebu, you are absolutely right. The passengers would not have dared to behave in this manner at any destination outside India.

Air India should have been wound up long ago. Unfortunately, most of the Indian players including Kingfisher failed in aviation. Sometime back Tatas wanted to get back into airline business in association with Singapore Airlines but the government did not give clearance.

When JRD Tata was removed from Chairmanship of Air India, there was a hording at Nariman Point, Mumbai ‘Tata does not always mean goodbye’. Well, it did mean farewell to proper airline management.

Abraham Tharakan said...
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Happy Kitten said...

As I said earlier, the entire situation could have been controlled by the Pilot. She is the captain of the airlines and is trained for this job unlike the passengers. If there is a technical problem, the passengers will understand since it their own life in jeopardy but here the aircraft only needed refueling. The pilot could have quietly told the passengers that since her duty time is over, the passengers need to wait until the next pilot took over. As simple as that. After all a passenger develops a special attachment with the pilot during the flight. In the end it his/her voice announcing the landing that makes one happy. I am not being sentimental but having experienced many turbulent flights specially over Cochin, one cannot help but thank the pilot. So unless these passengers were provoked they wouldnt have behaved thus.

I am happy that the malayalee has finally put his foot down when it came to Air India. Kudos to those who protested.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Happy Kitten, I can understand how you feel about it. You have already had a bad experience with Air India.

I was not aware that the passengers were not told about the need to refuel. Any way, the Civil Aviation Minister has said that the question of action against the pilot can be considered only after the DGCA report. Let us also wait for the report. In the meantime the pilot has filed a formal FIR. That is a separate procedure.

Yesterday the Chief Minister of Kerala made a statement that for two hours the passengers were quiet. If that is true, I wonder why the pilot waited in the cockpit all that while before trying to disembark and be blocked by the passengers.

Ebby said...

This is only a culmination. The ordeal started when the passengers were waiting inside the plane for close to five hours before the flight took off from Doha. The nerves were already strained by then so it only needed another smaller episode to trigger what we saw.

I had the experience of waiting inside an Air China plane for close to six hours. Our flight in a similar turn of events could not land at Bangalore and was diverted to Chennai. While we waited, they were kind enough to run the air conditioning. But believe me, it is harrowing. The flight itself must have been close to 7 Hours, the check in time should have been another 2 Hours. So, in effect, it would have been close to 15 Hours since we had any proper relief for our bodily needs. Believe me, the modern diaper is not designed to last this long and every flight will invariably have a few babies! Thus, the stench inside was nothing imaginable. We too had a few irate passengers pointing out from 2 AM that flights had resumed landing in Bangalore. But like you mentioned there were systems and rules to be followed before we could be airborne again. Since the crew were Chinese, the irate ones couldn't get past their wall!

In such cases polite spokesman from the airline is all that is needed to calm tempers. And surely, the small engine at the rear which runs the generators for powering the air conditioning system could have been kept on. I do see the egoistic attitude of the airline staff for this added woe.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Ebby, I can very well understand what you are saying. I have had bad experiences though not to this extent during the last 57 years of flying. It was bad luck that this Air India flight had to be diverted from Cochin.

True, the nerves of the passengers were on edge. But the crew too had to go through the same inconvenience and also do their work. What I feel is that the passengers should have got down at Trivandrum Airport, eased themselves and waited for another plane to transfer them to Cochin. There is no indication that they were officially told about any bus ride.

I am shocked that the Chief Minister said that the passengers were quiet for the first two hours. This means the pilot could have got down but she willingly sat in the cockpit (without air-conditioning?) till the passengers started trouble. She could be brought out only after five and a half hours – an imprisonment for no fault of hers.

Further statements of the CM are even more shocking. First was that the police will not take any case on the pilot’s petition. Yesterday’s report, after six passengers were formally questioned by the police, was that there won’t be charges. If any concerned person goes to court on this it could be quite embarrassing. The Civil Aviation Minister in the meantime stated that passengers entering the cockpit was a serious matter.

The issue was unnecessarily politicized. Some sensible person should have brought about a compromise. That may be still possible. If the DGCA reports say that passengers did enter the cockpit and threatened the pilot, the offenders would be in deep trouble.

It is a well-known fact that Air India staff does not like postings on this sector. If no action is taken and the air crew goes on strike, will the poor Keralites working in the Gulf be happy? Of course, the State Government is planning to start Air Kerala! But the Gulf jobs won’t wait for that.

All said and done, frankly, Air India will be my last choice to fly.

Ebby said...

Tharakan Sir, Good one about the pilot too waiting without air conditioning :) But the cockpit surely has at least a couple of open-able windows. She even managed to throw a piece of paper out! So comparing her condition with those in the fuselage is a tad unfair don't you think? Also it is likely that it needed those two hours for her duty time to elapse.

Nice blog you have and nicer interacting with you.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Well Ebby, in two hours the pilot could have landed the plane in Cochin without interrupting air conditioning to anyone.

Thank you for the comment about my blog. For me too it was nice conversing with you. Hope we will have more occasions of that.

snigdha G said...
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