Did you ever see Dickie Bird's funny one-legged stance when a team or a batsman was on a 'Nelson' number -- 111, 222, 333, and so on? Was he trying to ward off bad luck from the batsmen or praying for the fielding side. Be that as it may, a certain '111' proved distinctly unlucky for Jet Airways on December 13, 2004. And this was the now infamous flight that connects Mumbai to Nagpur, which bore the flight number '9W-111.'
In case you missed the story, this was the flight that was carrying a whole bunch of political worthies from Mumbai to attend the winter session of the Maharashtra assembly in Nagpur. The air-conditioning unit was not working, so these pampered leaders forced their way into the cockpit, leaving the poor captain no choice but to abort the flight.
All the passengers were then forced to wait until Jet Airways could find another plane. When last heard, Maharashtra Home Minister and Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil had ordered an inquiry into the incident and MLAs from across the political spectrum were demanding action against the pilot. There are so many things wrong with this episode that I scarcely know where to start!
First off, I realise that Maharashtra, unlike states in northern India, does not really have a proper winter. But the weather in December is fairly pleasant, and Flight 9W-111 was taking off at about seven in the morning when the sun is fairly low in the horizon. Do the politicians in Maharashtra really want us to believe that they are delicate plants who would have withered away without benefit of air-conditioning?
In any case, the flight crew tried to explain to the irate neta-types that only one of the two air-conditioning units hadn't come one, and that it would do so once the plane reached a certain height. (Air-conditioning is really quite irrelevant once a plane reaches a certain altitude. Correct me if I am wrong, but wouldn't the flight have been cruising along about 25,000 feet above sea-level? That is some 4,000 feet less than the height of Mount Everest but the temperature up there would still be freezing. The legislators would have done better to worry about the heating!)
The MLAs were having none of this however. As Gopinath Munde of the BJP later explained in the assembly, 'Something serious would have happened had the pilot gone ahead with the flight.'
I respect Shri Munde's grasp of politics and his business acumen -- he runs a successful sugar cooperative -- but does a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit really qualify as a violation of flight safety regulations? If not, what was the 'something serious' that he was talking about? I note that this perception was evidently shared by ministers from the Congress-NCP coalition, a livid Labour Minister Baba Siddiqui even trying to force open the door of the plane.
This brings up the more serious issues. Air-conditioning units which fail to hum along may not qualify as a violation of flight safety regulations, but people barging into the cockpit is certainly a major cause of concern. It was just a bunch of politicians this time, but I hope everyone remembers that it was a very different group of people doing so on September 11, 2001!
When the twin towers of the World Trade Center came tumbling down, one of the first things that the Americans did was to strengthen security measures on all their domestic flights. Chief among them were steps to ensure that nobody could open a cockpit door after it was sealed by the pilot and the co-pilot. This obviously has not been done in Indian domestic flights, and I think we should all know why.
The thought of terrorists at the controls of a plane with loaded fuel-tanks in the skies over Mumbai is frankly too terrifying to contemplate. (Armed sky marshals have also been introduced on American domestic flights, and this too is a measure India must consider.)
Readers may remember that two weeks ago I mentioned Muslim League workers assaulting journalists at Kozhikode airport. According to reports they went so far as to remove the national flag and replace it with their own -- something which has already drawn the attention of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. I submit that the probe he demanded of the civil aviation minister should now be extended to cover the outrage in Mumbai as well, so that it becomes a comprehensive report on flight security in general.
Praful Patel, the Union civil aviation minister, is a thorough gentleman and a very good administrator. I can't imagine him throwing his weight around, and in fact he has already publicly recorded his reservations on the behaviour of his fellow politicians from Maharashtra. One hopes he will take the hint from the Speaker and overhaul the sorry state of affairs thoroughly.
What of the last issue, the haughtiness of politicians who believe they are a law unto themselves? I really don't know. It is said that every democracy gets the leaders it merits, but what did we to deserve such men? That is the larger issue which we must all ponder long after Flight 9W-111 is forgotten.