IndiGo applied rules for ‘unruly passengers’ for one with special needs

Jennifer E. Engen

Rules under the ‘Carriage by Air-Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility’ in spotlight

Rules under the ‘Carriage by Air-Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility’ in spotlight

IndiGo’s CEO Ronojoy Dutta has defended his staff’s decision to deny boarding to a child with special needs because he was in “panic” and a safety hazard by citing rules that were framed in a very different context that was to deal with the likes of Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaekwad, who in 2017 hit an Air India official 25 times with his slipper because he was denied a business class seat.

A senior government official has also said that the airline was being insensitive by taking cover under the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR or the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s rules) on “Handling of Unruly Passengers” instead of talking about the provisions of the rules on “Carriage by Air – Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility”. 

The CEO said in various television interviews that the Section 4.4 and 4.5 of the CAR allow airlines to identify and monitor passengers who can pose a threat to the safety of the flight and prevent them from boarding a plane.

The rules define an unruly passenger as one who “fails to respect the rules of conduct at an airport or on board an aircraft or to follow the instructions of the airport staff or crew members and thereby disturbs the good order and discipline at an airport or on board the aircraft”.

While safety in aviation is paramount, can standards of normative behaviour be imposed on passengers with special needs, and can the DGCA’s rules reconcile the two?

They grade offences into three categories — unruly behaviour such as physical gestures, verbal harassment, unruly inebriation; physically abusive behaviour such as pushing, kicking, hitting, grabbing or inappropriate touching or sexual harassment; and life-threatening behaviour such as damage to aircraft operating systems, or physical violence such as murderous assault. These offences can lead to a passenger being put on a no-fly list by airlines from three months to two years.

So, in citing these rules, the CEO is likening a special needs child with those passengers who use abusive language or physically assault airline crew members. In much the same way the airline’s manager at Ranchi airport compared the child with “drunk passengers” who can be a threat to flight safety, in the words of one of the eye witnesses.

There is, however, a separate CAR for persons with disabilities, that may need a relook in the light of the recent incident. The CAR on “Carriage by Air – Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility” were framed in 2014 after disability rights activist Jeeja Ghosh, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was removed from a flight by SpiceJet because the pilot thought she was “mad”. In 2016, the Supreme Court awarded her a compensation of ₹10 lakh because of “unreasonable discrimination”.

These rules require an airline to inform a passenger in writing if she or he is refused boarding in the interest of safety. The rules lay emphasis on issues of access, and rightly so, and they require airlines to ensure priority passage for persons with disability, provision for wheelchairs, a website that is disability friendly, and comfortable seats with adequate leg space on a plane. When they were revised in 2014, there were provisions included for complaints, and redress mechanisms. However, they don’t adequately deal with issues of prejudice and discrimination. “Therefore, if the fact-finding committee looking into the incident has to propose policy measures, it must also include a disability rights activist or a development paediatrician,” said Jo Chopra, executive director, Latika Roy Foundation, an NGO working with persons with developmental and other disabilities.

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