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Air Tight, for Air Travellers

By: Ramesh Vaidyanathan and Mansi Singh

India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets in the world, fuelled by factors such as rising income levels and competitive airfares. With airlines, particularly low cost ones, expanding their fleet and network by the day, they are increasingly confronted with instances of unruly behaviour by passengers.

The issue received some much deserved attention in the aftermath of a deplorable assault on an Air India staffer by Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad. In a somewhat belligerent and unprecedented counterattack that pleased the general public, Air India and all private airlines banned the MP from flying on their aircraft.

While the ban was short-lived because of the protagonists involved, and the perpetrator walked free despite the media blitzkrieg, the incident highlighted the issue of legality of no-fly lists in India. It was soon realised that no-fly lists had no legal basis and that something had to be done soon to fix it.

The ministry of civil aviation swung into action and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) floated draft rules  last week for amending the Civil Aviation Requirements on ‘handling of unruly/disruptive passengers’ and to establish a national no-fly list. The draft rules aim to enhance the safety and security of passengers, crew as well as airlines. 

The draft rules envisage a central database of unruly passengers. If an airline decides to ban a passenger for unruly behaviour, it will inform the DGCA and other airlines, and the passenger will become a part of the national no-fly list. Individuals considered by the ministry of home affairs as national security threats will also form a part of the national no-fly list.

On receipt of a complaint of unruly behaviour by a passenger, the airline will refer the matter to an internal committee that will then decide on the further course of action within 10 days. A passenger banned by one airline may be banned by other airlines at their sole discretion. The enquiring airline will inform the passenger in writing that he/she has been added to the no-fly list, the reasons for such addition, and the duration of the ban. A passenger aggrieved by the ban can approach the appellate committee that will be set up by the ministry of civil aviation.

Air Brake

Three categories of unruly behaviour have been identified based on the severity of the misconduct. Level 1 includes disruptive behaviour such as physical gestures, for which a passenger can be banned for upto three months. Level 2 includes physically abusive behaviour and sexual harassment for which a passenger can be banned for upto six months. Level 3 includes life-threatening behaviour and damage to aircraft for which a passenger can be banned for a minimum period of two years, which may be extended to an indefinite period. This means that a passenger may never be able to fly again if he commits a serious offence.

While any mechanism to control objectionable flight behaviour and punish misdemeanors is welcome, the draft rules appear to have missed the plot. Instead of a centralized mechanism with uniform standards to deal with such incidents, each airline is now tasked to form its own internal enquiry committees. With enquiry being separate, determination subjective and the outcome confined entirely to the airline involved, the ill-behaved passenger will merrily migrate to other airlines.  This way, one airline may choose to fly a passenger who is refused travel by another airline thereby rubbing salt over the wounds of the affected airline. It is worth considering if such a situation defeats the entire purpose of having a national no-fly list.

In what could prove to be a fatal legal flaw, the draft rules do not provide for prior hearing to the affected passenger before he is grounded. Needless to say, such orders will be set aside by the courts for the asking, notwithstanding the severity of the alleged misdemeanor.

What happens if the ban is wrongfully imposed? What is the nature of evidence that will be considered prior to imposing the ban? Should a passenger not be entitled to compensation if the allegations against him are proved wrong on appeal and he/she is defamed in the process? These are some of the questions that remain unanswered in the draft rules.

Another shortcoming of the draft rules is that the internal committees have the discretion to determine the duration of the ban. It is possible that certain internal committees adopt a more stricter approach than the others. This could be a perfect recipe for chaos. The ban duration prescribed for particular offences should have been unambiguous and standardised.

Escape Chute

The ambiguity also extends to the list of offences classified under various levels. Effective implementation will further depend on evolving a clear mechanism to confirm the identity of passengers at the time of booking an airline ticket.

Most importantly, the question that will call for an immediate answer is whether such bans transgress the fundamental right of free movement within the country guaranteed by the Constitution? Are airlines that form an integral part of the public transportation network akin to a club or a hotel that can get away with a placard stating ‘Rights of admission reserved’?

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