IndiGo_A320 classic VT-INT. Photo: Devesh Agarwal.
IndiGo_A320 classic VT-INT. Photo: Devesh Agarwal.

Opinion: Indigo passenger pilot spat: on-time needs an empathetic human touch

India’s largest domestic airline prides itself on being punctual. It’s tagline “on-time is a beautiful thing” describes the core pillar that the air traveller wants today, predictability.

Punctuality has become part of the airline’s DNA. The airline has adopted processes and equipment to meet its punctuality goals. For example IndiGo slavishly closes its counters exactly 45 minutes before a flight’s departure much to the chagrin of some passengers, including me, who have reached the counter one or two minutes late.

It appears all the employees at the airline live by the punctuality mantra, which is good, but it’s a delicate balance of process versus customer happiness. It is the employees who put a human face on the highly procedural world of aviation, and in these times of cattle class travel which tests the patience of the best, it is these employees who must balance, what at times can be an excessive zeal, with empathy.

The November 13 fracas between a passenger and the commander of IndiGo 6E-287 from New Delhi to Chennai highlights how excess zeal, a lack of empathy, and a lack of patience come together to escalate a situation into an incident. While you can read more about the incident in this report from the Mumbai Mirror, a gist is below.

6E-287 was scheduled to leave New Delhi at 20:45 (8.45 pm). The aircraft performed an inbound flight from Ahmedabad and arrived normally. IndiGo turns its aircraft around in 30 minutes block time (i.e. wheel chocks on to wheel chocks off), which means about 20~25 minutes of actual door open time. While most passengers from Ahmedabad disembarked normally, an elderly passenger who had suffered multiple fractures needed a special automated wheel-chair and was in extremely pain and took a long time to de-board. In the mean time, in their zeal for on-time, IndiGo gate staff loaded up the departing passengers on to ramp buses and sent them to aircraft. With the boarding process delayed by the injured passenger, passengers were kept on board the buses for over 30 minutes. One of the passengers seated in the rear got worked-up and voiced his opinion to the flight commander that he should apologise for the delay. The war of words quickly escalated and the pilot demanded the passenger be off-loaded. Soon ground-staff and CISF security guards were called to remove the passenger. Many fellow passengers sided with the protesting passenger and objected when removal was attempted. The flight finally departed, with the protester passenger on-board, and with a delay of 90 minutes.

My view

IndiGo was clearly a victim of circumstances and I truly sympathise; but instead of adapting to the situation, the crew from the gate to the aircraft, created a series of mistakes which inflamed the situation. I hope the IndiGo management will look in to my observations and comments in their quest for continuous improvement process (CIP).

At most Indian airports, aircraft are parked at non-aero-bridge stands and use buses to ferry passengers to and from the terminal. This adds time to the entire boarding process. It appears that IndiGo has made it a practice to send the departing passengers buses a little before the aircraft is ready to receive them. This is an acceptable work-around but a delay sticks departing passengers on the bus. I have experienced this when travelling with IndiGo on October 12th.

These buses are okay for a five minute ride but after 10 minutes with a full standing load, they can get suffocating and uncomfortable, asthmatics and claustrophobes more so. IndiGo must improve synchronisation between the aircraft ground team and the gate team.

IndiGo staff also need to be more empathetic despite the fact that the average Indian passenger is a spend-thrift bully. They want dirt-cheap prices and yet 5-star service. The word ‘courtesy’ does not exist in their dictionary and airline staff is someone they can boss around. Yet, for all their faults, they are by and large empathetic with the elderly, infirm, and especially an elderly infirm. The protester passenger who boarded from the rear door could not make out the delay was due to the elderly passenger who de-boarded from the front. He probably felt IndiGo should apologise and the Captain is the senior-most representative present. From the Captain’s view-point the passenger could have been belligerent and could pose a threat on the upcoming two and half hours flight to Chennai.

The war of words could have been easily defused with a polite apology. The Captain would have clearly seen the buses lined up at the aircraft for a long time. A simple quick explanation of the delay along with a small polite apology would have created empathy with the passengers and put them at ease.

IndiGo staff must appreciate that air travel is no longer glamorous, instead it is tedious. A 24×7 economy is taking it human toll too. Across the board stress levels are up and patience is down.

Share your thoughts via a comment.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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  1. True. No real fault on indigo behalf.

    Crew could have been more tolerant and customer service oriented by putting his ego aside and providing a simple apology “sorry for the delay due to us needing to assist an elderly passenger” instead of taking it as a personal affront and insult to his competence as a pilot…

    India has a long way to go when it comes to real customer service attitude.

    • By nature, we are argumentative people! We don’t like debates, but like arguments.(look at some TV news channels). Our ego is like Mount Everest, but when it comes to actions, we disappear like Bermuda mystery! Mera Bharath Mahaan. Aviation: All passengers feel that they are Maharajahs(Thanx AI) and Cockpit Crew feel as if they are Governors. Moral: Airlines need passengers and passengers need airlines

  2. If Indigo can go to the detail of telling us which city each crew member is fun, surely giving the reason for delay would be within their stride 🙂

    May its just shows the difference between ‘rehearsed’ and the ‘non-rehearsed’ announcements.

  3. Balanced PoV. I think it is also 6E’s responsibility to train their crew, including pilots, about possible passenger sensitivities.

  4. For one thing, if Indigo does not allow a passenger from boarding even if 2-3 minutes late, then 30 minutes of delay cannot be condoned. What applies to passengers must apply to them too, in equal measure.

    It has become a standard practice for Indian pilots to abuse their authority and call the CRPF/security when their ego is hurt rather than when there is a real threat. They are the ones who should learn some manners. Action should be taken against the pilot for misrepresenting the situation and acting in bad faith/busing authority.

  5. I think its to do with the general degradation I have experienced in 6E these days – the crew behave in a near arrogant manner – I have been asked to take the remaining veg sandwich or leave it or asked to look at the menu again when the 2 choices I had made were not available…they remind me of the old jet airways crew when if you werent platinum then you got a different treatment……. spicejet these days is the most customer centric airline – I hope they stay around….