Passenger on wheelchair thrown off: IndiGo's image problem and why SOPs must be diligently followed

New Delhi: India’s largest airline by passengers, IndiGo, is facing public ire after the second reported incident of negligence towards passengers came to light. This time, an old, wheelchair bound lady fell off when an IndiGo staffer was ferrying her from the flight to the terminal building at Lucknow airport. Last week, a viral video of a scuffle of IndiGo ground staff with another elderly passenger had gone viral, after which the airline apologised and sent a detailed report of the incident to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

The last few weeks have turned out to be somewhat traumatic for IndiGo, with another incident involving shuttler P V Sindhu adding to the airline’s image issues.

So was IndiGo staff rude, violent and did it behave in an abominable manner in the assault of the elderly passenger last week, was the staff again to blame for the lady passenger falling off her wheelchair and again, when the badminton player allegedly objected to rude behaviour of the airline staff? As always, there are differing versions of what happened in each incident, with unnamed airline officials saying the staff was not at fault in any of the three instances. And the affected passengers blaming the unruly airline staff for each incident. In the first two cases, the airline has already offered its apology to the passengers and in fact, is locked in a verbal dual with the airport operator for the wheelchair incident.

It is quite clear that whoever was at fault in each of these incidents, the airline has done well to tender a sincere apology. Next, IndiGo needs to put in some systems in place so that such incidents are not repeated. If, in the case involving a scuffle with the elderly male passenger, the airline is correct in saying the passenger got violent first, it should ensure an FIR is filed and the matter taken to its logical conclusion.

 Passenger on wheelchair thrown off: IndiGos image problem and why SOPs must be diligently followed

Representational image. Reuters.

Again, if IndiGo stands by its version that the lady fell off her wheelchair because of cracks on the tarmac – well, it needs to obviously find a solution with the airport operator and perhaps decide on an alternate route to wheel the elderly and the disabled. SOPs – standard operating procedures - in each of these cases would be the way forward. Were cracks on the tarmac brought to the notice of the airport operators earlier, how do other airlines ferry wheelchair bound passengers on the same route without incident?

Anyway, these incidents could also be the result of a rapidly expanding airline struggling to keep pace with service standards. The chief executive of a full service carrier (FSC) known for its service standards recently expressed fears of slipping standards as that airline’s network expands – this is an all pervasive danger in the service industry.

Specially in the context of India’s airlines, which are struggling with inadequate infrastructure as passenger count rises. We have clogged airports, with several including Delhi and Mumbai doing peak aircraft movements per minute – with terminals bursting at the seams. In this scenario, it is obvious that IndiGo (known for its on-time USP) would be most hassled about completing pre-flight formalities well before time. This mad rush to get things done before time is naturally going to lead some to take short cuts, unless rigorous SOPs are in place. Remember, IndiGo has been on rapid capacity addition as it eyes more of the Indian air travellers’ pie; it already controls nearly 40 percent of the domestic market which means every fourth Indian passenger travels on its network.

Now, in the latest incident of the old lady falling off her wheelchair, not only is IndiGo facing customer ire, it has also crossed swords with the Airports Authority of India (AAI), which manages the Lucknow airport.

This piece in Economic Times says the lady was injured after she fell from a wheelchair while being ferried by an IndiGo staffer at the Lucknow airport. And two days after the incident, the airline on Monday claimed that the mishap happened due to a crack in the floor at the airport, which was contested by AAI. An IndiGo spokesperson later shared images of the AAI hastily repairing cracks after the incident.

But the AAI said in a statement that the incident happened because of “gross negligence of IndiGo staff”. And this ET piece quotes a statement by an IndiGo spokesperson where he apparently apologised for the mishap involving the passenger, Urvashi Parikh Viren. “Our IndiGo representative was pushing her wheelchair towards the arrival hall. As he was guiding her wheelchair through a vehicular lane, which was dimly lit at that time of the night, her wheelchair got stuck in a deep crack on the tarmac and lost balance and she fell off her wheelchair.” Clearly indicating the entire fault did not lie with the airline staff. According to the airline, the passenger was “injured” and was immediately rushed to the doctor of the AAI and was administered first aid.

But the AAI spokesperson said “the reasons given by IndiGo of the wheelchair getting stuck into the crack on the road and claims of dim light are not correct as there is no crack on the tarmac and the area (baggage makeup area, near the airside conveyor belt) has sufficient illumination”. Earlier on Monday, an AAI statement said that as per investigations, the incident happened due to “gross negligence of IndiGo staff as he chose the wrong path on the tarmac and mishandled the passenger”.

Basically, the AAI provided a sequence of events that led to the woman passenger falling off: “The IndiGo loader ferrying the passenger in wheelchair, went in the wrong direction by taking a short cut ignoring the defined path. As per the airport’s CCTV footage, six wheelchairs were required and used for the above mentioned flight. While, two loaders took the defined and proper path towards the arrival hall, four loaders took a short cut to the arrival hall of the terminal building.”

Whoever may have been to blame, the passenger tends to squarely blame the airline for any discomfort or mishap during travel. IndiGo knows better than most, a carefully crafted image is as vital as efficiency in this business. In the coming days, the airline would do well to remember it simply cannot afford any more taints on that image.

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 15:01:52 IST