(Opinion Column in Khaleej Times dated 16 January, 2023)
The infamous peegate involving Air India doesn’t seem to recede from the headlines. The case is taking a bizarre turn with the main accused Shankar Mishra claiming in court that the lady urinated on herself, and the Indian media and public are wasting no time to latch on to the sensational details that are trickling in.
A lot of mud has been slung at all parties involved—the accused, the victim, the crew, the airlines management—and the feeding frenzy is far from over. In the midst of it all, I stand slandered as a longtime air traveller whose scruples have been suddenly called into question.
Travelling hasn’t got any easier for us ever since security became paramount post 9/11. As passengers, we haven’t had the smoothest transits with rigorous scrutiny and burgeoning crowds at the airport terminals stretching our patience to the breaking point. We puff and pant, swallow mild expletives when called up to open our bags for a detailed inspection and by the time it is boarding time, we have turned into grumpy cats waiting to purr in defiance at the slightest provocation.
No one denies the terrible toll new age travelling norms take on us, but does that give us the liberty to break the codes of good manners? Should the byzantine modes of modern air travel convert us into perverted passengers, taking away from the joys of a journey that is often designed to make wholesome memories?
What makes us think that paying for the ticket gives us unlimited privileges and when we are in the sky, we are the lords of all that we survey?
I don’t suggest that misdemeanour is standard behaviour among all passengers, but there is a general air of self-importance that we demonstrate; we display a condescending attitude towards the flight attendants, and an unknown streak of arrogance creeps into our behaviour that makes us less considerate than we must ideally be towards fellow travellers. Once again, I must reiterate that it is not typical, but there are instances of aberrations that put the decent and civilized flyers to shame.
It would be presumptuous to conclude that Indian passengers are less sensitized to travel conduct, but for some reason, they have earned more disrepute than others, as observed from my own travel experience and the accounts from flight attendants who often bear the brunt of unruly passengers.
To begin with, we tend to scoff at rules, and when asked to comply, we challenge them by asserting our passenger rights and showcase our blatant disregard for the comfort of other people. Whether one agrees or not, guzzling alcohol that comes free has often to blame for our inflight behavioural lapses. Just because something comes free, we tend to make the most of it by adopting an attitude of ‘finding value for every penny paid’. I will not forget an old instance of a fellow passenger who had spent most of our flying time waxing eloquent about her opulent living in the Gulf, quickly tucking the airline blanket into her hand baggage before deplaning. How petty we can get despite our education is something I still can’t figure out.
The moment we step into the plane, we somehow tend to imagine that the flight attendants are there only to cater to our unending demands and their smallest faults are blown out of proportion just because we consider them obliged to service us for the money we have paid. No doubt, flight attendants are recruited to make our transits easy, but to imagine that they are servers in the sky to be at our beck call is outrageous. Often, it is this callous attitude that makes the attendants respond rudely to passengers who take them for granted and treat them contemptuously.
My inflight experiences have been most cordial because I smile, acknowledge and compliment the flight attendants generously for the services they offer. I make special efforts to address them by their name revealed in their badges. I accept their apologies for a special request as genuine inability to provide it because of constraints. In the end, it is all about being kind and considerate to people who are there to make a living by tending to us, no matter how exalted that job might be.
There is a difference between ignorance and arrogance. When passengers slip up and fail to measure up because of lack of air travel experience, people do cut them some slack. But if the ignorance becomes permanent, or if the impropriety in manners during a flight is initiated by heightened ego, a patronising mindset or downright apathy and inconsideration, then such passengers must be shown their rightful place—the asphalt of tarmac. If passengers must fly, then they must comply. For the sake of their comfort and for those who they accompany in the sky.