ricein flight Passengers around the world have had too many horror stories to lead airlines or their CEOs to apologise, as scripted. Then back to business; the aggrieved traveler is left to stew. A November accident on an Air India flight from New York to Delhi had a different outcome. On January 11, a court in the Indian capital heard a case in which a 34-year-old man was arrested for drunkenly urinating on a 72-year-old business class female passenger. The man blamed alcohol for the behaviour, and told the court he did not recall when the crew woke him up and demanded an apology, which he did. Despite this, his request for bail was refused.
India is littered with stories of well-connected people who got away with wrongdoing. Sometimes, there is a brief spark of anger and a promise to investigate, but when an investigation occurs, it is often dragged on and quickly forgotten. The case fit the script — until late December, when a letter from the victim reached Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chairman of Tata Sons, the conglomerate that buys Air India from the government in 2022.This letter has been economistStarted naively: “I am writing to express my deep disappointment at the appalling incident that occurred during my business class travel.”
Then there are the sensational details. After the lights dimmed, she encountered drunk passengers and called for help from a crew member who lacked reflexes or capabilities. She recounted being told to go back to her old seat (not the one next to the violator), which had been covered with a sheet but still felt damp and smelled of urine. Another passenger begged her to upgrade to an empty first-class seat, but to no avail.
That sparked a reckoning, starting with the airline’s parent company. Mr Chandrasekaran called the incident “a personally painful matter for me”. The captain and four crew members of the flight were suspended. The criminal, an Indian employee of US bank Wells Fargo, was fired. Delhi police tracked him to Bengaluru using mobile phone data. He was arrested on January 7 and is currently in pre-trial detention.Anger has spread to newspaper pages and television Screen. The aviation minister weighed in, telling reporters: “Further action will be taken expeditiously following the conclusion of the ongoing proceedings.”
There may be a silver lining. Any passengers who try to misbehave on future flights may be reconsidered (including drinking so much that they lose their minds). For Tata and Air India, the public relations disaster made clear that turning around a flagship airline crippled by decades of government mismanagement will require instilling a new culture. It’s one thing to buy new planes and hire new managers; it’s quite another to change unionized work rules that have dulled employee initiative for decades. As India’s most respected company, Tata can succeed. Where it leads, other Indian players may follow. ■
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