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Rosy Kumar | May 31, 2003
Every airline is vying with the other to serve up sumptuous lunches and pamper the traveller.
But what happens if there's something wrong with the food supplied in the plane? At one time airlines disowned all liability on the ground that the food was supplied by outside caterers to whom contracts had been given.
The courts used to accept this contention but not any longer. Airlines are being hauled up and severely punished if there's anything wrong with the food supplied to passengers.
In Indian Airlines vs S N Sinha, the complainant travelled from Patna to Ahmedabad by Indian Airlines on February 9, 1990.
While eating dinner, Sinha suddenly felt something piercing his gum. He found that a sharp metallic wire had gone into his mouth along with the rice and curry served as part of dinner.
He complained to Indian Airlines but it said it wasn't liable because the food was supplied by a caterer. As such only the caterer could, if at all, be held responsible.
Sinha filed a complaint before the Bihar State consumer Disputes Redressal Commission claiming compensation of Rs 110,000 for pain and suffering.
The state commission rejected the Indian Airlines contention that it wasn't responsible if there was anything wrong with the food supplied by outside caterers and that providing food to passengers did not form part of the airline's main function.
The commission observed in its judgement that while fixing the fare structure, airlines takes into account the cost of food.
The commission, however, did not award Sinha the compensation he claimed as it was found to be highly excessive.
A sum of Rs 2,000 was awarded. This was found adequate even by the National Commission before which Sinha filed an appeal.
R P Jain and Dr Arun Kumar had a slightly different experience while travelling on Air Sahara from Mumbai to Delhi on August 20, 1994. Both are orthodox and strict vegetarians. The dinner served to them on the flight was marked 'vegetarian'. Both ate some of it before realising that they had been served a non-vegetarian dish.
They filed complaints before the Delhi State Commission claiming compensation of Rs 7 lakh (Rs 700,000) each with 24 per cent interest.
The commission held that an apology tendered by Air Sahara to the complainants would serve the purpose, "as no amount of compensation would undo the religious hurt". The complaints were dismissed without any compensation.
Things have changed drastically and service providers are no longer let off easily. In a recently decided case, Rishi Bajoria and his colleagues were travelling by Lufthansa on December 10, 1997. They noticed a number of glass pieces embedded in the food served to them.
Bajoria and his colleagues filed a complaint before the West Bengal State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, claiming compensation of Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) for mental agony and harassment. The case was contested by Lufthansa stating that it had no role in the preparation of food supplied by outside caterers.
After hearing the parties, the West Bengal State Commission held the airline highly deficient and said the complainants had to be suitably compensated by award of damages for tension, anxiety and mental sufferings.
It is stated in its judgement that "though there is no yardstick for assessment of compensation in regard to this type of cases", it awarded a sum of Rs 5 lakh (Rs 500,000) as suitable compensation to the complainants.
Millions of dollars are awarded as compensation in developed countries if service falls short of high expectations. These heavy punishments are intended as a deterrent.
It appears that in India too the consumer courts have started inflicting heavy punishments in cases of established deficient services and this trend will certainly help consumers to get better service.