The last couple of months have been a public relations nightmare for Indigo Airlines ever since a Bollywood singer’s 30-year-old son shouted at the staff in an airport in Chhattisgarh. “Let me reach Mumbai. If I don’t strip you, my name is not Aditya Narayan,” he screamed hysterically on camera, wrongly assuming anybody knew who Aditya Narayan is. The provocation: Indigo was charging him Rs 13,000 for 40 kg excess baggage. Later, badminton superstar PV Sindhu, who carries much more heft, tweeted that she had a terrible experience with Indigo on a flight to Mumbai. The airline said Sindhu had boarded a flight to Mumbai last, carrying hand baggage that didn’t fit in the overhead storage space and they had to move it to cargo last minute. But the final nail in Indigo’s proverbial coffin is the video of their ground staff manhandling a passenger, who had disembarked at the Delhi airport. After it became prime time news on TV, Indigo apologised and has taken action against the staff.
The power of the footage, which has since gone viral, is indeed shocking, and on the face of it paints Indigo in a dismal light. A greying, bespectacled, entirely sane-looking gentleman, pushed to a scorching floor held down by a second staffer in a stiff grip. The later part of the video, almost brutal, completely obscures the fact that before the scuffle began, the passenger’s tone was all wrong, contemptuous and abusive for being made to wait for the bus. Post 9/11 and more recently the attack at the Brussels airport, personnel working in high security areas are trained to keep a watchful eye on their surroundings. They have to strictly follow protocol, and react, keeping passenger safety as top priority. That means de-escalating a conflict and not responding aggressively to an obnoxious passenger — but acting swiftly if things are getting out of hand. In this case the Indigo staff, maybe, could have shown more restraint. However, one has to wonder if the Indian traveller has simply not evolved to keep up with airport etiquette in a post-terrorism world.
What appears to be odd regarding this particular passenger’s behaviour is that the unwritten and unspoken rule is, in this environment, the airport, nobody can challenge the authority of their staff. Period. Which he disregarded completely. It does not give them leeway to assault you, but in the interests of other passengers, they have to be allowed to do whatever it is they’re trained to do when there’s a fight. It’s a tough one for Indians to wrap their heads around. Speak to any staffer at the airport they’ll tell you passengers behave like the pilot is their personal driver and support staff similar to coolies at a railway station. For example, there is one scene that plays out regularly at the check-in counters of all airlines. People arguing and pleading to carry more weight than the permitted allowance – for free. It’s spelt out loud and clear on the ticket and on the website, what the allowance is. Yet at the time of check-in, bags are being opened, weight redistributed between cargo and hand, while passengers continue with their accusatory mutterings on the intransigence of the airline staff.
This misplaced expectation of entitlement—and a total disregard for the rules— is uniquely Indian. Like the hotel industry, air travel professionals have largely gone by the motto that the customer is always right. But, spare a thought, somebody, for the all-too human 20-somethings who work 12-hour shifts, patiently listening to irate travellers all day. They have the highly stressful task of trying to get thousands of people to follow the rules. The horrific incident when a Shiv Sena MP attacked an Air India employee recently highlighted the vulnerability of staff by bullying VIP’s and the hostility they face. The Ministry of Civil Aviation has since declared three levels of severity of unruly behaviour, the worst being that you may be put permanently on a no-fly list. No airline is perfect. No passenger is either. It’s only following the rules that can prevent such unnecessary and unpleasant drama.