Social media was recently abuzz with two bizarre incidents involving airlines. In one instance a sitting Member of the Indian Parliament Ravindra Gaikwad, by his own boastful admission, beat an airline staffer ‘25 times’ with his footwear for being made to travel economy class on a business class ticket. The aircraft flying that route wasn’t even configured with a business class but that didn’t matter to the unruly VIP who decided to take the law into his hands. In another incident, a boarded passenger in the USA was dragged out kicking and screaming after United Airlines overbooked their flight and then decided to ‘bump off’ passengers to make room for some of their own crew.
Both are deplorable incidents that have plumbed the depths of misdemeanour on either ends of the passenger-airline divide. Here’s a recent experience I went through. I leave the readers to decide if all our hastily framed judgements about airline crew are justified.
Harish Nayani is a Senior Commander with a successful low-cost airline in India. I know him as a reputed ex-test pilot from the IAF and a person with impeccable credentials. So when I boarded a flight home with Harish in command, I knew we were in safe hands. We exchanged the customary handshake at the gate (his firm, officer-like handshake can turn ordinary folks’ palms to putty!) and settled-in for the short flight in 16C, an aisle seat. It was a late evening flight out of Mumbai scheduled for an 8:45 PM arrival at Bangalore & already delayed by an hour & thirty.
As we taxied out to the runway, strange sounds like a barking dog emanating from below the cabin floor raised suspicions in the passenger cabin. To me it sounded like a hydraulic pump cutting in & out, a wee bit louder than the usual noise on A320. Long delays for departure at Mumbai are nothing unusual and, in this case, gave passengers enough time to conclude that there was something amiss with the aircraft. My casual suggestion to co-passengers that the A320 has a fairly advanced ECAM system (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitoring) to warn pilots of potential malfunctions fell on deaf ears. Their concerns were duly relayed to the cockpit through cabin crew.
Soon enough, Capt. Harish’s calm and composed voice announced that though they did not find anything wrong from the cockpit (he used that term over the more civilian ‘flight deck’), in view of passengers’ concerns he had decided to return to the terminal and have it checked up.
A collective sigh of despair went up. It was almost 9PM and everybody knew what kind of delays to expect. In such a congested terminal, who plans gates for aircraft returning from departure sequence? It wasn’t going to be easy for anybody.
After spending another hour on the ground, Harish came back on the PA to announce the ‘good news’ that necessary checks have been run and they were ready for departure. By now tempers had started flaring with some passengers demanding deplane & refunds. Patience was a virtue fast depleting from the passenger cabin along with items on the ‘Hello 6E’ in-flight menu.
During the second attempt to taxy, the same unusual noise was back. Passengers roundly concluded that the aircraft was defective and the pilot was trying to take to the air regardless, a decision that would hardly come from a seasoned Captain in any respectable airline operating the fly-by-wire A320. A mini ruckus erupted in the cabin with few passengers leading the charge that the aircraft be returned to dispersal. Situation was quickly spiralling out of control of cabin crew who seemed to have all but forgotten their lessons on dealing with difficult flyers.
Harish’s confident voice betrayed no sense of trouble when he announced the second return to the blocks. But it had little effect on temper tantrums billowing in the cabin with passengers demanding everything from food to change of aircraft. He announced with much calmness that he would do everything in his capacity to ensure that everybody gets to Bengaluru with utmost safety and convenience in the same plane. He was instantly rebuked by many in the passenger cabin as “pagal ho gaya hai” (he has gone crazy), “i fear for my life and he wants go” etc. Meanwhile, Captain Harish pulled into the gate and retarded throttles for the second time that night.
The airline seemed to be misfiring on many fronts that evening. Food and water had started running out which further fuelled a mini revolt in the cabin. And the ire was expectedly directed at hapless cabin crew because they were the only ones at hand.
Soon, Captain Harish announced for the third time that we were ready to proceed but were being delayed because of few passengers who insisted on deplaning along with their baggage. Another chorus of ‘we all want to deplane’ went up in the cabin taking decibel levels to a new high, little realising that as per BCAS rules passengers deplaning after having boarded would not be allowed to leave the terminal till aircraft lands at the destination. The fact that a few odd bags will now have to be identified out of 190-200 bags, pulled out of the baggage hold and checked out of security was lost on the irate passengers.
A calm but firm voice from cockpit summarised the options – stay in your seats and enjoy a safe albeit delayed flight in this fully serviceable aircraft to Bengaluru, or insist on deplaning with attendant delays to all concerned. That restored some order among the passengers. Harish was clearly using his old IAF skills to control large, unhappy groups. I smiled involuntarily!
Meanwhile, hot tubs of khichdi arranged from the local ‘Balaji Hotel’ outside Mumbai Domestic were rolled into the cabin. Some scoffed and refused to eat while others wolfed down the hot food. Harish taxied out for a smooth take-off and an uneventful flight to Bengaluru. He thoughtfully held back the inflight Captain’s briefing to avoid disturbing the soporific ambience of an airbus full of tired, sleepy passengers. We touched down at Bengaluru well past midnight after a delay of over 5 hours.
In a similar situation, any other Captain would have decided against presenting himself before passengers as they deplaned. But not Harish. He was there outside the cockpit with his team, wishing each one a safe and happy stay in Bengaluru. I got a special bear hug, one that elevated him many notches in my esteem. I wanted to tell him, next time just bloody offload the ungrateful pax and leave them to the mercy of ground staff & BCAS regulations. But I knew such advice would be untenable for a person of Harish’s calibre. I restrained myself with the usual minimalistic service courtesy ‘thank you sir’.
Before we point accusing fingers at airlines and their staff, maybe we should introspect a little on whether we are setting the right examples as passengers. Many children witnessed the proceedings onboard that flight. What lessons would they have picked up from the way adults behaved: shouting screaming and creating ruckus without knowing the A in A320?
Tomorrow, one of those children could well become the next Ravindra Gaikwad and use his footwear against an airline employee.
By the way, the ‘barking dog’ noise heard on ground in an Airbus A320 is produced by the Power Transfer Unit (PTU) which allows the aircraft to retain full hydraulic functionality on a triple-redundant system while taxying out on a single engine, thereby reducing the environmental footprint and helping airlines save fuel to keep the business competitive.
But who cares? I have my size-8 slippers and an attitude to boot. Airbus ho ya tere baap ka bus!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. Images from social media.