AVIATION/DGCA-Jet Fracas

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With the DGCA cracking the whip on Jet Airways for allowing Sonu Nigam to sing on a flight, should this regulator of civil aviation take a chill pill before it earns the moniker, “Dull Guy of Civil Aviation”?

By Shobha John


This is one crooning Jet Airways could do without. When well-known singer Sonu Nigam sang on the Public Address (PA) system of a chartered flight of the airline from Jodhpur to Mumbai on January 4, little did the airline realize that a Pandora’s Box would open. The video, put up by some members of that flight, went viral, and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) reacted to it belatedly this month.

It came down on Jet and asked it to suspend five cabin crew on board and issued a show cause notice to the airline asking why its license should not be suspended.

While the DGCA said that safety was compromised due to the singer using the PA system, there have been vociferous attacks on it from all quarters asking if the punishment meted out to the Jet crew was fair. All Sonu did was sing two numbers at the request of passengers on board—Do Pal Ruka from the film Veer Zaara and Panchhi Nadiya from the movie Refugee.

DGCA REGULATIONS

The DGCA’s Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR)—Section 7 (dealing with Training and Licensing), Series ‘M’, Part I, Issue II, dated March 15, 2010—say this about the Public Address System and Interphone System Drills: “The PA system and interphone system are tools for relaying safety information thus using the systems correctly and effectively increases the probability of the message being received and understood.”

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If that is so, how is it that airlines also use the PA system for promotional offers, for selling various items, for NGO donations and what have you? How is it that there have been instances earlier of entertainers using it to sing and crack jokes? Has the DGCA become too stringent and dull in an effort to lay down regulations for the civil aviation sector? Does it need to lighten up before the moniker “Dull Guy of Civil Aviation” sticks to it?

First, what were DGCA’s objections to Sonu Nigam singing? Its notice to Jet said: “These acts by the cabin crew had drawn the attention of other crew on duty, thus reducing their preparedness/alertness. The frequent movement of the dancing crew may have affected the aircraft’s centre of gravity during flight and created turbulence….”

The DGCA even had objections to the use of cell phones in the air to take pictures which it said was “against present regulation” as use of personal electronic devices in airplane mode was not allowed at the time. “(The airline) might have instigated passengers to become unruly…. It is established that (the airline) failed to observe various safety regulations,” the notice said.

Jet did the needful and in a press statement said: “All cabin crew on the flight have been taken off flight duty for enquiry and corrective training to reinforce strict adherence to operating procedures.” Within a week, they were back flying.

FEAR PSYCHOSIS

While Sonu Nigam has termed the grounding of crew as intolerance, senior commanders of various airlines, experts and frequent travelers that India Legal spoke to were categorical that DGCA’s action was taking things too far. But the fear psychosis over the over-regulated and overtly strict DGCA cracking down on airlines and cockpit and cabin crew was so pervasive that no one wanted to come on record least their licenses be cancelled and their careers be put on hold.

Firstly, if the issue was so serious and jeopardized flight safety, how is it that the DGCA, the country’s top regulator for civil aviation, didn’t even react to it till almost a month later? A perusal of Sonu Nigam’s video shows a few people standing up to get a better look at the singer. Can that change the center of gravity (CG) and create turbulence, as alleged by the DGCA?

Sonu
Playback singer Sonu Nigam during his performance at a university programme in Moradabad. (UNI)

A senior pilot of an airline categorically said no. Explaining aerodynamics, he said: “The CG in a plane changes even if one person stands up and keeps changing as people move around the plane. But that is not dangerous as there is a range in which the CG can keep changing and the plane is designed to handle these minor shifts. Plus, the tail plane generates a counter force to stabilise the aeroplane. Unfortunately, the DGCA is full of bureaucrats who know little about the technical aspects of flying.”

Another commander asked: “Is the plane a boat that the CG can be so critical? We often come across passengers bunched up near toilets. When has that made the plane unstable?”

There has also been confusion about the flight’s height while Sonu was singing. While the DGCA said it was descending, Sonu said the seat belt signs were off, meaning it was in a non-critical phase of flying. Commanders assert that even if it was descending, they (pilots) give ample time for passengers to come back to their seats and secure themselves and for cabin crew to clear food, trolleys, etc and return to their stations. “There are certain critical phases of a flight—take-off and descent which are around 10,000 ft—when everyone is supposed to be seated. But during cruise, people can move around.”

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Jet Airways Crew

What people also forget, said a commander with over 18,000 hours of flying, is that the pilot is the head of a flight. “If he wants to speak to passengers, all he has to do is press a switch which will override the PA system in the cabin. So where is the question of safety being compromised? Regulation is vital but over-regulation is detrimental and can cripple this industry as is happening now.”

NOTHING UNUSUAL

Ronesh Puri, MD, Executive Access, a top headhunting firm, and a frequent flier for decades, said: “As long as safety isn’t compromised, such entertainment is fine. It happens all over the world. People walk around, hang around bars in planes (large wide-bodied planes like the A380s and the B747s), have fashion shows, stand-up comedians and guitarists walking around, etc.” Air Sahara used to hold shows onboard when it was flying.

romesh
Romesh Puri, Managing Director, Executive Access.

Besides, flying should be made light-hearted and enjoyable and passengers would also welcome humorous in-flight announcements instead of the archaic ones we often hear in India. “Such entertainment would increase the brand value of an airline and break the monotony. I would welcome it as long as it doesn’t disturb my sleep at odd hours,” said Puri.

Most pilots were unanimous that the DGCA should first get its house in order before cracking down on silly things. They asserted that corruption, nepotism and tardiness in issuing licenses plague this vital organization and touts are still rampant there. “I have come across instances of DGCA issuing letters to clerks to fly in the cockpit with us, when there is no rule to this effect.

The DGCA is no one to talk about morality. It is acting like a goonda,” said one aggrieved commander. “The PA system has been used for all kinds of announcements. Foreign pilots have invited people to sing and entertain if it was safe to do so. Even cricket scores have been regularly announced over the PA system. Where was the DGCA then?”

Shakti Lumba, former head of operations of Alliance Air and IndiGo
Capt-Shakti Lumba, former head of operations of Alliance Air and IndiGo.

Shakti Lumba, former head of operations of Alliance Air and IndiGo, said: “The DGCA is raising a bogey for nothing. All over the world, airlines include some fun for the passengers. The DGCA has not applied its mind in this matter and it is desperately trying to justify its hurried action by raising a safety bogey.”

REAL ISSUES

Mark Martin of Martin Consulting Inc, an aviation consultancy, said: “Instead of going into the real issues plaguing aviation in India such as old radars, ILS (Instrument Landing Systems) which don’t work, insufficient fire and emergency equipment at airports, improper runway lighting and damaged perimeter walls allowing cattle to stray into the airport, the DGCA is picking holes in a non-issue. It is acting like the police rather than as a regulator. This action of theirs is beyond logic.”

He also said that DGCA’s objections to the use of cell phones showed its lack of knowledge about its own rules as mobiles could be used during flights as long as it wasn’t during take-off and landing.

Mark Martin (1)
Mark Martin

While some pilots said the DGCA was right and that all aircraft equipment was out of bound for passengers, such conservative opinions we-re few and far between. Of course, there are moments of turbulence and sudden failure of pressure which necessitate immediate return to seats, but these are exceptions rather than the norm.

With flying being such a stressful activity now in the face of heightened security measures and terrorism fears, some light-hearted fun and cheer would do a world of good to everyone as long as safety isn’t compromised. Perhaps it is time the DGCA took some leaves out of the book of foreign airlines. There are numerous videos and instances of airlines taking a chill pill and letting their hair down. While some of the entertainment may be on the ground, what stays is the fun and happiness quotient.

TAKE A CHILL PILL

Check out the video (http://bit.ly/1fJn4aK) of Finnair cabin crew dancing on a flight to India to celebrate Republic Day on January 26, 2012, to the joyful and exuberant Deewangi Deewangi from the film Om Shanti Om. It was while passengers were boarding this flight from Helsinki to Delhi that flight attendants started grooving, much to their astonishment. Wearing Indian dresses and broad smiles, they gyrate happily, leaving behind a wonderful feeling. Or watch the hilarious announcement of a Southwest flight attendant (http://bit.ly/1eJKwoU) who jazzed up a boring announcement with her verve and humor. Or see the foot-tapping rap of another Southwest flight attendant (http://bit.ly/1llppRi) who even got passengers to clap and sing along with him. Delightful, isn’t it?

emiratesx
Emirates video in 2015 with Benfica and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal.

Even airline ads have often shown their fun side even as they talk about safety issues. Qantas’ latest ad is a ready advertisement not just for sunny and expansive Australia but talks about safety norms in any plane. Then, there is Virgin Atlantic’s fast-paced and trendy video with smart-looking cabin crew gyrating in a video on safety with even a “nun” thrown in.

Watch Emirates’ safety video of 2015 in front of 65,000 fans during a soccer game between Benfica and Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. It was clever, smart and slick and has already been watched on YouTube by a stupendous 2,158,376 viewers. Perhaps it is time the DGCA also took a chill pill, put its “Hands Up And Say Om Shanti Om”.

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Finnair cabin crew dancing on a flight to India to celebrate Republic Day on January 26, 2012.

Spicy Fare

In 2014, the DGCA slapped a notice on SpiceJet Ltd for organizing dances on eight flights on the occasion of Holi, the festival of colors. SpiceJet officials were called to the DGCA office to explain why they had allowed cabin crew onboard eight of its flights to perform a dance to the Bollywood number, Balam Pichkari, even as a pilot took pictures on their mobiles.

Passengers could be seen cheering and clapping.

The dance took place on eight flights on March 17, 2014. This was after a video of the cabin crew on a Goa-Bangalore flight dancing in the aisles went viral. Similar dances took place on other flights such as Delhi-Goa-Delhi, Jaipur-Mumbai-Delhi, Mumbai-Bangalore-Kolkata and Bangalore-Pune-Ahmedabad. DGCA suspended two SpiceJet pilots and issued a show cause notice to the airline.

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