Who is writing the epitaph for Air India

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

Can one “dream” of a Boeing-787-800 “Dreamliner” taking 24 hours to cover 1,450-kilometres Kolkata-Delhi distance? 238 passengers reached Delhi (staggered, battered, scattered) as destitute, depressed, distraught, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, with bath-less stinking-body, dirty because of lack of toilet, (aircraft water and tissue papers over-consumed), toothbrush-less, breakfast-less after being confined to static aircraft on Jaipur’s Sanganer airport parking bay for almost five hours (9:52 pm on December 12 to 2:35 am on December 13, 2019), with cabin lights put off. Yes, that’s what was done by cabin crew members of AI-701 on Thursday, December 12 and Friday, December 13, 2019.

The scenario wasn’t expected or anticipated to turn gloomy and pathetic within a few hours of take-off when passengers at Kolkata assembled to check-in, got security done, and boarded at much-maligned Dum Dum airport.

Far from gloomy, Kolkata airport wore a visibly festive look and enjoyed season’s happy mood, notwithstanding the turbulent polity of the nation. Thus, when the aircraft readied for timely departure, came the captain’s announcement from the cockpit: “Owing to inclement weather, Delhi control advised all outstation-origin flights to hold at respective stations, till further info”, thereby delaying AI-701’s departure by clean 67 minutes.

Full-load domestic AI-701, Boeing-787-800 (ANQ), operating Kolkata-Delhi leg, though 67 minutes behind schedule time, owing to remote non-clearance of Delhi ATC on weather issues, nevertheless was smoothly airborne from 11900′ (3627 metres) runway 01 Right/19 Left in 42 seconds dot. It was 6:37 pm. After retracting flap, slat and heavy undercarriage, the mighty twin-engine bird (maximum take-off weight 227.93 ton) stabilised and smoothened its flight envelope/configuration to reduce drag and enhance thrust to gain height and take designated flight level, above 30000′, allotted by Calcutta ATC.

Nothing much happened thereafter though for 1 hour and 25 minutes, except serving veg-snacks, two emphatic pleas by the cabin crew not to move or leave “while seat belt sign is on” and guiding four errand passengers in search for upper-class toilets. Sitting reclined to catch a short nap in the forward aisle seat, one got devoured by sweet dreams of another silken-smooth touchdown of Dreamliner on Delhi’s 14534′ (4430 metres) runway 29/11 or 12500′ (3810 metres) runway 28/10 and calculating approach speed and gliding path! Which side? Delhi-Gurgaon-Jaipur national highway or Dwarka! But, that was not to be; as a sombre, not-too-optimistic announcement from cockpit played spoilt sport of my thoughts (and also wishes of 237 co-passengers); that owing to “severe storm, turbulence, low visibility, AI-701 along with all Delhi-approaching craft are to ‘hold’ and ‘hover’ till further direction from Delhi controller” and that there could be “flight diversion” in case weather doesn’t clear soon. It was fifteen minutes past 8 pm. Our ‘flight of good times’ suddenly appeared doubtful. Instead, began anxiety for Delhi-landing. Soon, however, came the order: ‘divert to Jaipur’. Delhi weather was not conducive to a safe landing. The sorry plight of 238 passengers of AI-701 flight had begun. The usual 30-minute Delhi-Jaipur flight took 45 minutes as the weather around Jaipur too was soggy and foggy, resulting in clogged air traffic of diverted flights. Thus far, however, Air India couldn’t have been criticised as things certainly were beyond its control. Nevertheless, hereinafter a lamentable lack of professionalism and maturity of aircraft crew made life miserable for each and every passenger. AI-701 landed in Jaipur at 9:52 pm, 3 hours and 15 minutes after take-off from Kolkata. It was time for some food at least. But, no. It turned out to be time for compulsory starvation, akin to “black hole” tragedy of 1757 Bengal. Mighty Boeing-787-800 on the ground; all lights mysteriously switched off by the unresponsive cabin crew who en mass resorted to vanishing tricks; cockpit crew on radio silence (akin to December 7, 1941, Japanese navy’s Pearl Harbour mission) and overflowing washrooms with un-washable water spreading stinks. One never imagined a band of non-professionals operating a great airline like Air India, founded by the legendary JRD Tata who must be weeping his heart out from inside his grave. Repeated passenger plea for food and access to airport lounge fell on deaf ears of AI-701 crew. Instead, false info was furnished about imminent take-off to Delhi. At 2:35 am, however, they yielded as it became clear that the cockpit crew could not have had violated “flight duty time limitation” (FDTL), a mandatory provision stipulated by International Civil Aviation Organisation, barring pilots to operate beyond certain hours owing to fatigue. Two passengers knew about it and asked questions. To this, a cabin crew nastily retorted: “Don’t worry, will do what we think best to take you to Delhi”. Reality is, either the cabin crew didn’t know aviation rules or simply didn’t expect “ignorant cattle class passengers to point out aviation law”.

AI-701 never landed in Delhi. All passengers were dumped in Jaipur. Should it not be treated as breach of contract and a case fit for consumer court by all 238 passengers?

Thus, all of AI-701 was now at the disposal of one AI man who took us round and round for more than two hours in the midst of chaos, confusion and exchange of choicest of expletives. Not a single food outlet. Not a single loader for baggage handling. Not an iota of effort to see what happens to 238 commercial passengers of AI-701. Each and every passenger eventually had to disperse on his/her own steam. Shelling out thousands to reach Delhi. I too spent Rs 9,000 to reach Delhi in a cab around 4 pm on Friday, December 13, 2019. Exhausted. Having starved close to 21 hours. Without bath, change and mirror to comb. A real story can be written for this devastating fiasco of Air India’s immature, non-professional, insensitive, arrogant, indifferent, callous and could-not-care-less crew. Yes, Air India must be handed over. To whom? Only to the original owner. Tata. Not to any other private or foreign operator. They will simply do what at least a dozen private airlines owners of India had done in recent past. Loot and scoot.

Postscript: I was an ardent advocate of government-owned and operated Air India for more than five decades and always defended them. Not today. Time has come for it to go back to where it was born. For the sake of professionalism, not amateurism and ignorance. Contextually, a two-decade-old Air India flight comes to mind. That too was a Thursday. October 7, 1999. Air India-273 Kolkata-Mumbai, commanded by a superb professional Captain RKS Gandhi. Between Aurangabad and Mumbai, the mighty Airbus-300-B4, registration number VT-EHC (maximum take-off weight 165 tons) hit severe turbulence of “retreating monsoon”, thereby compelling it to divert to Hyderabad. What grand “delay” it was! Hyderabadi hosts at their hospitality-best and Air Indians, their professional-best. All Mumbaikars reached home “next day” on Friday, October 8, 1999, after a delay of 12 hours. But none starving, thirsty, unhappy. Weather can play negative for aviation ops, but professional aircrew cannot act as a clueless bunch of cronies of the crown.

The author: Abhijit Bhattacharyya is a practicing advocate at the Supreme Court and High Court. He is also an alumnus of National Defence College and the author of ‘China in India’.

Published with permission of the author

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