In 1989, Mohan Ranganathan was the captain of an Indian Airlines flight flying from Port Blair to what was then Madras. Ranganathan refused to fly with Shivraj Patil, who held independent charge of the ministry of civil aviation and tourism, who was on board without going through the security check. “The minister had boarded the aircraft without going through the security check. I refused to fly with them on board. They were offloaded, went through the security check and then we left." According to Ranganathan, the minister was so livid that he actually wanted to file a chargesheet against him, but the matter did not proceed further. “You want instances of VIP behaviour while flying—well, this is just one of them," he said.
Recently, Congress Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha flew from Delhi to Jabalpur on a SpiceJet flight. But then, something happened that led him to complain to the airline. No, it wasn’t that he was ignored but rather he was treated special. A transit bus which he boarded was “abruptly" shut to other passengers, which upset him. “We are living in a democratic country where every person is equally respected and important," Tankha said.
Tankha’s stand was interesting in a country where ministers and VIPs expect special treatment while flying. And we are not just talking about skipping security or being assigned attendants to carry their cabin baggage, but also holding up flights. Last year, an Air India Flight was delayed and four passengers were offloaded at Leh to reportedly accommodate Union minister Kiren Rijiju and deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Nirmal Kumar Singh. Rijiju later said the airline did this without his knowledge. Around the same time, an Air India flight to New York was delayed, and the delay was traced to Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s principal secretary Praveen Pardeshi who allegedly forgot to carry his passport. And then there was a time when a flight was held up until an MP finished shopping.
The list is endless, but the conclusion is that when it comes to flying, important people in this country, especially our elected officials, tend to treat flights as their personal mode of transport.
“This is a phenomenon which is unique to India and perhaps to the sub-continent. I would put it down to the inferiority complex of our important people who need external validation and this is just one way of getting it," said Jitender Bhargava, a former executive director of Air India. He mentions that once there was a parliamentary committee where MPs raised the issue of not being given enough privileges while flying. “There are VIPs, MPs, MLAs and even business people who don’t want to be treated as special. In fact they will fly economy without drawing any attention to themselves, but these are in a minority."
Such instances are rare in a country where former aviation minister Praful Patel’s daughter could get an Air India scheduled flight aborted for it to be deployed as a chartered flight for ferrying her and some IPL players from Chandigarh to Chennai. That was in 2010.
“This sort of behaviour has to come to an end. It’s rather deplorable that in this day and age when leaders should set an example by their behaviour, this happens," said D. Sudhakara Reddy of APAI, or Air Passengers’ Association of India. He recalled an incident when a former Union minister’s son was on the same flight as him and was escorted through security. He even had the airline attendant carrying his briefcase who deposited it in the overhead bin and left while the son took his seat. “Why should airlines do this?"
Indeed, the question here is that while people can expect special treatment, why do airlines go out of their way to give it? Air India’s helplessness can be attributed to political compulsions but what about the others? According to Bhargava, “It’s much easier to walk an extra mile than to say no. You think well-known faces from the media world don’t ask for privileges?"
In other parts of the world, this kind of VIP privilege and airline servitude would be rather out of the ordinary. In fact, when it comes to “VVIPS/VIPS exempted from pre-embarkation security checks at Indian civil airports" in India, the list has 33 categories including presidents, governors, chief justices and Union ministers.
Ranganathan quit Indian Airlines in 1989 for a career in Singapore. He said he has flown important leaders several times and once he was No. 27 on the take-off queue with the Prime Minister on board. “I was asked to move to holding till it was our turn to take off and I told the air traffic control that I had an important person on board. They told me they were aware of my passenger but I should still proceed to holding." In India, such a situation, he asserted, will be the exception rather than the rule.
But with increased media coverage and social media condemnation, is it possible that our leaders and important people will give up this behaviour? None of the men Mint spoke to were holding their breath for it. Tankha’s protest seems a flash in the pan.