Air India Has Long Been a Personal Fiefdom of Politicians

Air India has the unique knack for being in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some of it is its own doing but quite often also due to controversies thrust on it. Two successive instances involving the Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, while travelling on the national carrier during the past week, have been dominating media space for the last four days.

It isn’t as if VVIP-related episodes are new to Air India. Because of its government ownership, the carrier has always been vulnerable to the tantrums of political biggies. The two latest events thus came as no surprise to insiders even if they created an unprecedented furore in the media. And rightly so, because the public is simply fed up of VIPs seeking special privileges at the airport, arriving only a few minutes before their flight even if they delay the departure, and creating a scene if officials, generally pliable, do not cede to their unwarranted demands.

Since they are so accustomed to these privileges, VIPs do not realise – or perhaps do not care – when they inconvenience passengers and upset flight schedules. It therefore came as no surprise that the two personalities involved immediately sought to deny what happened even though the facts as reported are borne out in the reports filed by duty managers in Mumbai and Leh.

Fadnavis has in fact gone to the extent of threatening the media, which had relied on the duty manager’s report, with a criminal defamation case. If one has to go along with the chief minister’s version, one could legitimately ask the question – why would a duty manager file a factually incorrect report? Surely he has no bones to pick with the CM.

Right call by duty manager

Duty managers at all airports file reports after every delayed flight listing the reasons because the on-time performance of Air India is reviewed on a daily basis by management at the highest level.

It could be that Fadnavis did not himself delay the flight because he was on board before the scheduled departure time, but can he absolve himself of the blame when the cause related to his principal secretary not having a valid US visa on the passport he was carrying? But Fadnavis informed the duty manager, when apprised of the situation, that if his principal secretary was not allowed to board the flight, the entire contingent would have to be off-loaded. The duty manager duly weighed his options – offload eight passengers, which would take a long time since their baggage would have to be off-loaded too, or wait for the secretary’s passport with the valid visa to reach the airport. He took the second option, and rightly so.

Since the flight had been delayed for 57 minutes a report had to be generated as per the established practice. What reason for the delay could he have cited in the report? He narrated the facts in chronological order. Could he have placed the blame on any other factor in the circumstances? No!

Air India’s management, after the civil aviation ministry offered a spirited defence of the chief minister, tweeted:

Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons used the tweet to defend Fadnavis. While the tweet may have deflected attention from the facts for a commoner, it couldn’t pass muster with those conversant with flight operations since a passenger not having a travel document and delaying a flight is in fact referred to in airline parlance as an “operational reason”.

Thanks to the media outrage and an earlier incident of June 24, 2015, involving the minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, compounding the issue, the Prime Minister has sought a report regarding instances of delays caused by VVIPs. Let us hope the ministry and Air India management are not economical with the truth.

Many previous instances

We all know that the phenomenon of VVIPs delaying flights and using Air India as their personal fiefdom is not recent or new; Praful Patel as minister once had an aircraft substituted so that his extended family could be accommodated in an aircraft with more business class seats. In yet another instance, his daughter had the flight diverted so that the IPL team she was managing could be transported conveniently. The list of such instances can run into hundreds of pages.

One only hopes that with the outrage now being witnessed and the public in no mood to tolerate such obnoxious behaviour on the part of politicians, two positives may emerge. One, that there is a change in the mindset of politicians so that we may see a drastic reduction in such instances. Two, that employees feel emboldened to adhere to the rule book. They for sure will now know that even if the management’s support is not forthcoming, the media and the public will stand by them.

Let us look forward to ‘Acchhe Din’ for the ordinary, paying traveller.

Jitender Bhargava is a former executive director, Air India, and author of The Descent of Air India.