The Slapgate Controversy

On 01 Jan 18, passengers flying on a long haul Jet Airways flight 9W119 from London to Mumbai were witness to a bizarre spectacle high up in the sky. Their Captain, a lady Jet Airways pilot came out of the flight deck in tears. When consoled by equally shocked cabin attendants, she alleged that the copilot, a senior Captain himself, had slapped her in the cockpit. Overcome with emotion after the physical assault, the commander of the flight left the flight deck in a huff.

What followed took airline etiquettes to a new low. The copilot who allegedly perpetrated the brazen assault came out of the cockpit to persuade the commander to return. As shocked passengers watched on helplessly, the cockpit was left unattended in a gross breach of regulations. After some more bickering and coaxing, both pilots resumed their duties in the cockpit and the flight landed uneventfully at Mumbai.

It is easy here to focus on the wrong emotionality – that of the lady pilot breaking down into tears and leaving the flight deck. However, the trigger for irrational behaviour and subsequent sequence of events was likely the uncontrollable rage of the male pilot who assaulted the Captain whom he was duty bound to assist and support throughout the flight. Predictably, the media and armchair theorists from airline industry focussed more on the lady’s tamasha than the man’s alleged violence, some even casually suggesting that she may have had it coming. It is 2018 and victim shaming is regrettably still very much alive and kicking.

The Indian aviation regulator struck back by suspending both pilots’ licences for 5 years, effectively putting a full stop to their flying careers. The quantum of punishment meted out to both protagonists leaves the impression that both are equally at fault.

Violence in the Air

In a sky that has seen many such transgressions followed by knee-jerk reactions and periods of apathy, this incident further eroded passengers’ faith in those vested with their safe return to the ground. In 2009, the pilots and cabin crew onboard national carrier Air India’s Sharjah-Delhi flight came to blows at 30000 feet. In April 2015, another incident of in-flight fracas leading to the cockpit crew coming to blows was reported from Air India. In Sep 2017, an Indigo Airlines air hostess and pilot were caught on CCTV exchanging tight slaps in the operational area of Jaipur airport while bewildered CISF personnel looked on. Now this. Some may argue this is not enough data to raise an alarm where thousands of flights operate each day. But in aviation, ANY incident that has the potential to create an accident or incident must be viewed as one too many.

Physical Assaults in the Cockpit

Most of us (thankfully) have never been at the receiving end of a humiliating physical assault like slapping. So let me give you a vicarious run down of how it feels when you get hit in the cockpit. During basic flying training, we had the odd instructor who used to hit their trainees. It was strictly forbidden but who would ever squeal on one’s instructor in a military flying environment? These were exceptions and those instructors had no business to be teaching. Once you are hit, the sortie is all but over. The fear factor and utter humiliation leave you so disoriented that you either freeze on controls or wish the sortie would end right there. Mind you, the experience and seniority divide between the instructor and pupil those days was huge (although that doesn’t justify use of violence). Think of the Jet Airways incident where both were equally qualified and the victim was a Commander of a wide-bodied Boeing 777. Can you imagine her state of mind on being slapped on the flight deck – a position she had earned through many years of hardwork and toil in the face of a punishing schedule and stressful lifestyle? Can rational thinking be expected of her in the immediate aftermath of the incident? As a pilot, my mind may not agree with her reaction but my heart definitely goes out to her. Nobody deserves workplace violence.

Treat symptoms or get to the root cause?

By firing the erring crew, we are only wishing the problem away. If one digs a little deeper, most of these incidents will have their genesis in personal or personality issues. While elaborate ‘no-fly’ lists and guidelines are being drawn up to prevent habitual offenders from taking to the skies, what have we done to secure hapless passengers from flight crew who may turn violent? Past precedence is that we punish the offenders and bury the whole episode with help from the airline’s PR mechanism; till the aeroplane becomes a ‘big boss house’ and boils over another time. A deeper analysis reveals many sensitive issues that could be festering in our skies. Many of them may seem to be in the realm of conjecture at this time as the real context for these incidents are seldom made public. But I write from my experiences as a military aviator and now a pilot in civil aviation, after having spoken to many in the industry who opened up on the condition of anonymity.

Pilot Resource Management

Pilots are expensive commodities. Most airlines look upon pilots as highly skilled ‘casual labourers’ who can be hired and fired based on the company’s requirements. Human resource management of pilots hardly extends beyond payroll and rostering in most airlines. Employees and non-fliers from the management down to the HR executive or ‘ground force’ envy the pilot’s pay. Even in the military, flying bounty availed by pilots was an eternal bone of contention. This translates to a different set of rules and circumstances when pilots get into trouble, which they sometimes do. Witch hunt and harsh punitive action in the name of air safety is not uncommon.

Pilots who are ex-military bring in a touch of leadership qualities and flying experience honed over years of military service. For others who have earned their wings after coughing up millions, there is big money at a young age, a certain glamour quotient, long hours with the opposite sex in a confined space or off-base layovers, and an arguably lonely life beyond the duty hours. An individual can quickly descend into the vicious spiral of indiscriminate spending, casual or superficial relationships, social media and addictions. What steps have airlines or the regulator taken to understand, if not address, these occupational hazards?

For airlines bleeding through slender margins, expensive training requirements mounting by the day and regulatory overkills, there is seemingly no incentive in expanding the scope of engagement with flight crew. To be fair, airlines do provide training for crew in grooming, interaction with pax, gender sensitization, dos & don’ts etc. But these rules are hardly enforceable beyond duty hours. Maybe it’s time to look at pilots as humans with all their fallibility and have mechanisms in place where discords and inter-personal relations are viewed with empathy and pre-emptive steps taken before they blow up in the sky. I know of a company where one of the most important criteria when selecting a new incumbent is good ‘crew room fit’ (ability to get along with other crew), done through exhaustive background checks. Why can’t this be the norm across the industry?

Fatigue & Duty Hours – Pilots are Human too

Airlines are notorious for extracting the last ounce of juice from pilots. Flight and duty time limitations (FDTL) have slowly but surely crept north under unrelenting pressure from airline managements. Pilots and their unions have resisted these machinations but pockets and clout run deeper on the other side. Years of pull & push and intervention of courts of law has yielded the FDTL that exists today. It is at a limit where it brooks no further upward revision. Adequate time is provided for sleep and rest, which are actually two different things. You can rest through myriad activities but you cannot command your body to sleep at will. Airline pilots deal with the ill-effects of disturbed circadian cycle almost on a daily basis. But has this aspect ever been given its due while considering violations? Or seen as a mitigating factor while dispensing penalties? Pilots are human too.

It is scientifically proven that fatigue and sleep deprivation can trigger temper tantrums, anxiety or poor judgement. Capt Zlatko Glusica took a series of wrong decisions after waking up too late into a ‘red eye’ flight from Dubai to Mangalore which ultimately led to the crash of Air India Express flight IX812 in 2010 and loss of 158 lives. What contribution fatigue or lack of sleep had in the recent slapgate incident is not known but isn’t it worth looking into? Pilots are provided adequate breaks after ‘red eye’ and trans-continental flights. But if someone uses this break to pursue a love life instead of availing adequate sleep, should airlines look the other way? Will closing the case with punitive punishment ensure a good night’s sleep for others? Perhaps, a little more research is required for finding means of mapping a person’s overall ‘wellness’ for a flight, rather than the regulation preflight ‘blow job’ on a breath analyser.

Influence of Social Media

As an air traveller, what is the first thing you do these days once your flight lands and clears off the active runway? Switch on your smartphone and catch up on your emails and social media chats, right? So what makes you think pilots do any differently? Research is still playing catch up on the effect disproportionate exposure to social media could be having on people’s lives. Pilots on the flight deck of modern airliners often straddle different lives, online and offline. As airlines grow in size, so does the unfamiliarity and indifference towards other crew, who are rostered by computerised algorithms designed to milk the maximum flying hours rather than provide the ideal fit. There are little, if any, official forums for social interaction or building lasting friendships outside of duty hours. When situations turn ugly, like they sometimes do, the level of unfamiliarity or hidden bad vibes can put cockpit harmony and synergy in deep peril – particularly for Indians who wear their heart on the sleeve and carry an XXL male chauvinistic ego. Is fraternizing your company colleagues on Facebook, Instagram or such other social media a good idea? What about your subordinates? Social media is a great leveler of sorts. How would a person’s social media interactions and ‘online life’ interfere in a job where you could be confined with the same people within a small, enclosed space for many hours, thousands of feet up in the air? No judgments, but maybe there is an adequate case for more research. This also extends to other uniformed services like the police, paramilitary, armed forces, etc where hierarchy is there for a reason.

Chicks in the Cockpit

Be assured, I do not use this term in a frivolous or demeaning way! Rather, this is the title of a book written by American author Erika Armstrong who fought her way through heavy odds stacked against women in the cockpit even in the USA and made it to an airline captain. She stated light-heartedly in a post connected with the latest slapgate incident that with her kickboxing lessons the outcome in this particular case would surely have been different! But her book – like her light-hearted comment – reveals the challenges that women face in this profession. It has been an astonishing sixty years since the first Indian lady commercial pilot Durba Banerjee took to the skies. They have commanded big jets and everybody’s respect and, to their credit, have a clean slate as far as safety is concerned. All-women crew have flown Indian planes round the world. The Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, recently acknowledged the fact that India has the maximum number of women pilots in the world. That’s no mean achievement on the part of women and our nation who made that possible.

But make no mistake, the cockpit is still very much a male bastion. We expect women to perform every bit as males even though it may not be a level playing field. India was leagues ahead in opening the skies to women. The pioneers who walked into the cockpit have retired over 30 years ago. But even after six decades, the dice is loaded against female crew members, as evident from the latest incident. Cultural changes take years and women who embark on this career should be well advised what it entails beyond holding the control column.

Carrying Personal Issues into the Cockpit

In the instant case, both pilots were fully qualified Captains who took turns at commanding the flight on the outbound / inbound sectors. What transpired on the opposite leg or on foreign shores we do not know, but surely such an incident has to have its genesis in something from their personal lives. Airline procedures are cast in stone, perfected through years of testing and constant refinement. There cannot be a professional flashpoint that vitiates the cockpit environment to an extent where they came to blows. Then again, did someone see it coming? My good friend Jyothsna Belliappa who is an academic with a PhD in Women’s Studies from The University of York, UK, raised the following query during our discussion on the subject:

“Assuming that the individuals concerned are single and that a direct reporting relationship or conflict of interest is not involved, why not make it possible for staff to openly disclose to the company that they are in a relationship so that they are not rostered together? HR should merely record the information and not ask further questions or pass judgments beyond cautioning them about jeopardising workplace relationships. Trust between employers and employees positively correlate with productivity. I know of an instance where employees have gone to their supervisor and said, “We’re exploring a relationship. Things might/not work out between us and this might or might not become a long-term relationship but in the interim it would be best if we didn’t work together.” HR’s response in that case was “Thanks for letting us know, we trust your maturity and if possible we will keep you two apart.” – How much easier it would be if all company cultures enabled that?  After all, people meet socially and intellectually compatible people at work so the possibility of a relationship is high (especially if you have not social life out of work as your description of pilots’ lifestyles seems to suggest).”

I have high regard for Jyothsna’s professional experience, wisdom and grasp of gender issues. Even so, I am compelled to think of this as a wonderfully utopian expectation as far as the airline industry in India is concerned. Maybe I am wrong. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come.

Wearing the Captain’s Hat

Captaincy doesn’t come easy. It takes a few hours to make a pilot, years to make a Captain. But once you don the four stripes, you are singularly responsible for the safety of passengers and crew. Many situations will test your professional and personal traits. Commanding a modern airliner today is about decision making more than pure flying – for that you have automation. While nothing can condone use of verbal or physical violence in the cockpit (or any workplace), the lady pilot in question here experienced an unfortunate situation which, if handled differently, could have set the bar high for women in the cockpit. If only she had maintained her composure and not deserted the cockpit. The copilot who perpetrated the violence deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms. But with her ungracious exit from the cockpit, the lady commander gave up some ground that women (including herself) have diligently earned over the years. Even so, i would think that the punishment meted out to her was harsh. She was a victim who got punished for being at the receiving end of workplace violence. Think about this.

What were her options?

This was not a situation defined in the operations manual or quick reference guide. She faced physical violence in the confined cockpit from a least expected quarter. A crew member she had known for many years. What were her options? My guesses:

  • Maintain a non-confrontational approach to defuse the situation.
  • Declare an emergency and divert to land at the nearest suitable airport following ‘pilot incapacitation’ procedure.
  • Maintain stoic composure, and summon a cabin crew member or sky marshal into the cockpit till such time the attacker calms down.
  • Threaten to report the matter and thus dissuade the attacker.
  • Wince & bear it in the interest of passenger safety (may end up as another data point for #metoo).

She did none of that. Whatever transpired, deserting the cockpit in tears is not what the passengers or airline authorities expect their Captain to do when faced with a serious situation. It may be recalled that on 7th Apr 1994 two pilots fought off a murderous attack by a company employee onboard a FedEx DC-10 cargo plane, managed to subdue him, and safely landed the airplane still bleeding from their serious injuries (read about this bone-chilling incident here). If you are wearing the Captain’s pants, fleeing the cockpit is just not an option.

Mental Illness

In India, there is a serious dichotomy in rules pertaining to flight crew. Every flight (or the first flight of the day, if flying multiple sectors) has to be preceded by a Breath Analyser Check to detect consumption of alcohol. You could get caught on the wrong side of this regulation (and penalised) even with a casual use of mouthwash or OTC expectorants. But there is no deterrence for flying under the influence of drugs, psychotropic substances, anti-depressants or sleeping pills. While we have ratcheted up the penalty on alcohol, a whole range of mental illnesses and drugs have managed to slip under the radar, even after the Germanwings accident. Rules do exist for psychological screening, counselling etc. But in a country that has been in denial about mental health issues for the longest time, pilots are the last ones to call in sick because, well, he or she is feeling ‘a little down’. Rather drag yourself to the cockpit where at least a few hours of ‘controlled rest’ is guaranteed in long haul flights. The enormity of the mental health problem is lost on us.

A Call for Action

Beware the tearing hurry to expand the fleet and improve bottom lines without addressing fundamental issues. Now, with UDAN and RCS becoming the new mantra, maybe it is time to address silent killers and prickly issues, some of which I have tried to highlight in this story.

Happy landings start with happy homes.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. My sincere thanks to Jyothsna Belliappa, PhD & well-meaning airline pilots who helped me understand the dimensions and boundaries of this problem. Views expressed in the article are personal and written with the sole intention of improving air safety.

5 thoughts on “The Slapgate Controversy

  1. Wonderfully articulated. It was definitely a very serious lapse. Harsh punishment may be is required but looking into the route cause and doing course correction is equally important. Great KPS let the thoughts continue flowing.

  2. A very well researched article KPS. No amount of training can cater for all eventualities. However some clear lines need to be drawn. Like you mentioned, leaving the cockpit is just not an option. Here HR needs to step in. Pilots should not be treated as commodities. A lot of investment is required like normal corporates do for their employees (not monetary). Then why not here. Time we made a beginning.

  3. Excellent articulation. You are absolutely bang on in saying that the root cause needs to be established. Suspension of licence is just treating the symptoms.

  4. Well articulated. Unfortunately very few are taking up flying for the pure love of it. Many are driven by the lure of money and glamour. These incidents stem from that.

  5. As a veteran military & civil pilot, I fully understand and endorse your views. The only thing I would like to add is that potentially violent pilots show tell tale signs quite early in their careers. Senior pilots, like instructors and examiners should be able to pick up these signs and red flag such individuals. And they should be punished at the first signs of errant behavior. Such people have no place in the cockpit.

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