In a rare move for any airline, Air India in a public statement called the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA) decision “excessive” for suspending its pilot-in-command for three months for the urination incident on a New York-Delhi flight of November 2022, and announced that it will be helping him appeal against the order.
Six unions of airline employees, including those of Air India, such as its two pilot unions and a union of its cabin crew, also appealed to the DGCA to “review” its “harsh punishment” against Captain Narayan Ramprasad. At the same time, the unions raised serious questions over the lack of response from the Air India management and its senior officers after its pilot-in-command filed all reports “instantly upon landing” as well as for conducting an internal inquiry full of “inadequacies and inaccuracies” that also failed to provide the pilots and cabin crew an opportunity to appear before it, therefore, resulting in a “miscarriage of justice”.
“In light of the mitigating circumstances and the financial detriment already incurred by the crew during their period of de-rostering, Air India deems the license suspension of the Commander excessive and will be assisting him with an appeal,” Air India said in a statement, while announcing that it has closed its investigation into the November 26 incident.
On January 20, the DGCA announced that it was levying a fine of ?30 lakh on Air India, and suspending the pilot-in-command (PIC) for three months, as well as another fine of ?3 lakh on the airline’s director of in-flight services for failing to report the November 26 incident to it in accordance with the rules for the handling of unruly passengers.
The airline explained that it believed its pilot and cabin crew had acted in “good faith” and couldn’t have identified the accused passenger, Shankar Mishra, currently in judicial custody, as unruly since he was “calm, co-operative and did not appear intoxicated to the crew”, nor had he been served excessive alcohol by the crew.
Therefore, “in the judgment of the crew, the alleged perpetrator posed no risk to flight safety at any time”. It adds that since there had been a mutual settlement between the accused and the lady passenger who levelled allegations against him, and there were no eyewitnesses to the incident, to ask the crew to make a presumption of the accused’s guilt would be “contrary to natural justice”.
However, a disagreement between the airline’s management and its employees over the onus for reporting the incident to the DGCA and handing over the accused to the police is evident. Air India blamed its crew for failing to classify the incident as unruly as per the DGCA’s rules by not taking the lady passenger’s allegations at “face value”, as well as its ground staff for not challenging the crew’s assessment and not reporting the matter as an unruly incident. It said that this is why it has issued warning letters.
A separate joint letter from five of Air India’s employees’ unions, including those representing pilots, cabin crew, and a sixth union of national and international pilots, to the DGCA, appealed that the latter “withdraw the harsh punishment and suspension” of the PIC.
The unions questioned the basis of the DGCA’s decision when there were official reports and emails of the crew filed “immediately” after landing, and responses to the DGCA’s show cause notice.
The joint letter points a finger at the Air India management and its senior officers for failing to study reports, which they say the PIC filed immediately upon landing, and reporting the matter to the DGCA within the 12-hour window. While they backed the pilot, who the letter states acted purely on “facts” and on the non-existence of eyewitnesses, for not classifying the accused as unruly
It unions’ letter also punches holes in the report of the internal complaints committee constituted by Air India, which it says should be quashed, as there were “inaccuracies and inadequacies”, and because the report failed to provide an opportunity to the cabin crew and the PIC to appear before the panel.
The unions also warned that by making an example of the pilot, the regulator was setting a dangerous precedent, which would lead to an “anxious atmosphere” for the pilots, crew and travelling public as it would be expected that “there should be rigorous warning, restraining and handing over of likely innocent passengers merely based on allegations”.