Verbal abuse and other instances of indecent behaviour by passengers are common harassment faced by cabin crew members of different airlines operating in the country. It is just that Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad’s misdemeanour with an Air India staff on 23 March brought focus on the issue. Many flight attendants The Sunday Guardian spoke to recounted their unpleasant experiences on the condition of anonymity. All names have been changed in this report.
Asmita, the crew member with a leading airline, said verbal abuse was routine in her job and it was not gender specific. “Once on a flight, we had turbulence, and the rules require us to assure everyone is seated and wearing their seat belts. The queue for the washroom had 4-5 people and we were asking all the passengers to sit back till the seat belt signal went off. However, one woman was drunk, and when I repeatedly asked her to follow the captain’s orders, she said, ‘Go tell your captain. I don’t give a f***’.”
Another crew member recalled that during takeoff, a boy on the aisle seat started throwing flying kisses to the crew members, and when questioned, said, “Ma’am, when I see you something starts happening.” In yet another instance, a well-dressed, well-educated man started questioning a crew member about their protocol if they saw someone making out on board. The crew is trained to handle these situations by giving a warning, and if that does not help, the captain can intervene and order the passenger to be restrained.
Yet another flight attendant recalled that “an Indian male passenger, while on a flight from Mumbai to Brussels started groping the Indian teenager girl sitting next to him, after she had fallen asleep. The girl woke up and informed the crew about the incident. On being questioned, the man said that he thought the girl was giving him hints. On arrival at the destination, the man was handed over to the police.”
The protocol says that if the passenger is not paying any heed to the warnings from the crew, and the plane is yet to take off, the captain can get the on-ground staff involved. Despite that if the passenger isn’t listening, he/she can be offloaded. If the passenger is misbehaving while the aircraft is flying, and the crew and the captain’s warnings fail, the captain can get the passenger restrained. If the situation gets worse, the captain might request emergency landing by talking to the air traffic controller (ATC).
Vivek, who is now a part of the cabin crew of a foreign airline, recalled his early experiences on Indian flights. “In one of my connecting flights via Goa to Mumbai, some slightly drunk boys were misbehaving with the crew. They were trying to be extra friendly with the female crew as well as passengers. The female crew members informed us and we in turn, informed the captain. We warned them, but they didn’t pay any heed and spanked our crew member. As we were near Mumbai, we handed them over to the authorities.”
Another crew member recalled that during one of his flights “a drunk man started beating his wife soon after takeoff”. “We tried to calm him down, but he slapped one of us. We informed the captain, who asked us to restrain him.”
Rahul, a steward with a well-known carrier, said that almost every day he witnesses stubborn passengers who want to delay the aircraft: “The passengers take a lot of time to get on board, especially in the business class. Those who get privileges from organisations are busy enjoying the business class lounge. If we request them to board and not delay the flight, they are usually rude and ignore our requests.”
Another member of the cabin crew recalled how a man was caught smoking in the toilet. “He tried to outsmart us by tampering with the smoke detector in the aircraft’s toilet, but the captain handed him over to the security when we reached our destination,” he added.
One of the common triggers for passenger misbehaviour is the luggage. Those travelling with excess hand baggage often start keeping their bags on the passage. A crew member said, “Airline rules don’t allow the baggage to be kept there. When we try to make the passengers understand this, they get defiant. In some cases, we had to send the luggage from the cabin to the cargo”.
Airlines that serve food on board with tickets, face another problem. In some cases, when the crew runs out of a food item and requests the passengers to adjust to another product, the passengers tend to get into arguments. As a crew member recalled, “We even offer our own food to avoid clashes Once, even the captain’s food was offered to a passenger who wanted only non-vegetarian meal, which had run out.”
However, the biggest brawl takes place over seats, especially when passengers are travelling in groups. If several people are travelling together but their seats are not adjacent to each other, they often create a ruckus. Recently, a VIP had booked an emergency-door seat for his elderly mother, who was on a wheelchair. The crew had to make them move to another seat, as old and ailing people aren’t allowed to sit near emergency exits as they will not be able to help others in emergency situations. “The seating arrangement is not in the cabin crew’s hands. It is the passenger who gets to ask for the seat while getting their boarding passes,” a crew member told this reporter.
In another incident, the cabin crew helped the passengers in an emergency situation, but got reported against. “In December 2016, a Goa-Mumbai flight had some issues during takeoff and made an emergency landing. The six-member crew evacuated the whole aircraft i.e. 12 business class and 156 economy class passengers, in 60 seconds, even though they are trained to do so in 90 seconds. A few people suffered some injuries, while the others were safe. However, the DGCA got a complaint that the crew didn’t perform their duties and were themselves afraid of the situation. The complainant further alleged that the crew members made phone calls to their homes, instead of looking after the passengers,” a flight attendant said.
As a result, the crew was under inquiry for three months, and was not allowed to fly. It is to be noted that the cabin crew gets their salary according to their flying hours. In certain cases, the basic salary is given while the crew is under inquiry. If they are proved not guilty, they are reinstated in service.
An inquiry is the worst fear come true for the cabin crew. Most say that for fear of passengers filing complaints, they prefer not to report any misbehaviour.
Another fear they have is of social media. One tweet may result in them losing their jobs, so crew members prefer not to antagonise passengers who misbehave with them.