» Business » Cognitive disabilities and the dilemma facing India's airlines

Cognitive disabilities and the dilemma facing India's airlines

By Arindam Majumder
May 10, 2022 12:14 IST
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Experts say that while regulations are more pronounced on how to handle physical disabilities, they are silent on mental or cognitive ones.

Arindam Majumder reports.


Photograph: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

Disability rights came under the spotlight again as the country's largest airline IndiGo refused to let a teenager with special needs board its aircraft.

While the twitterati as well as fellow passengers have called for strict action, IndiGo has stood by its action saying the airport manager took the decision to ensure safety of other passengers.

"Throughout the check-in and boarding process, our intent of course was to carry the family.


"However, at the boarding area, the teenager was visibly in panic.

"While providing courteous and compassionate service to our customers is of paramount importance to us, the airport staff, in line with the safety guidelines, were forced to make a difficult decision as to whether this commotion would carry forward aboard the aircraft," IndiGo CEO Ronojoy Dutta said.

The incident sparked widespread outrage on social media, forcing civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia to set up a team under the sectoral regulator DGCA to investigate the incident.

“We have received a report from the airline. We have decided to conduct a fact finding enquiry, which shall be done by a three-member team from DGCA.

"They will visit Ranchi and Hyderabad where the family stays and collect appropriate evidence within one week from today.

"Based on the outcome of the said enquiry, further action shall entail," Arun Kumar, head of DGCA, said.

Sources said that the DGCA has collected CCTV footage from the airport to determine what transpired at the boarding gate.

While disability rights activists have argued that IndiGo has violated DGCA Guidelines for “Carriage by Air — Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility, CEO Dutta in a television interview said the airline's action conforms to the same DGCA guidelines which say that if a passenger poses a threat to the safety of the flight, passengers or staff, he should be refused boarding.

"We have gone through this minute by minute what happened here, what happened there, and I turned to our head of airport operations and asked what would you do in this situation?

"They said we would do exactly the same thing, and if you ask me, what would I do? I would do exactly the same thing," Dutta said.

Neha Arora, founder of Planet Abled, a travel firm which provides accessible travel solutions for people with disabilities, said that such problems occur because the government and companies are not yet sensitive to intellectual or cognitive challenges.

“DGCA’s regulation on how to treat disabled passengers is age-old and doesn’t recognise the developmental challenges,” she said.

While more mature markets like USA also allows airlines to de-board a passenger if he or she poses a significant risk to the health or safety of others, it is mandatory for the airline to provide a written statement describing the reason within 10 days of the flight date.

For example, in 2013, a passenger with Tourette Syndrome (a nervous disorder) was not allowed to board a flight by US carrier JetBlue at Reagan National Airport because he mentioned the word bomb close to 100 times.

But the country’s Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination in air travel due to disability, makes it mandatory for all airlines to have a  Complaints Resolution Official (CRO).

Airlines are required to make one available to the passenger, at no cost, in person at the airport or by telephone if a passenger feels his or her rights are being violated.

Arora pointed out that mandatory training on how to approach physically or mentally disabled customers should be made compulsory for all customer facing staff in airlines and hotels.

“The first reaction that most people in our country have after seeing the slightest of emotional disorder is of shock. That should change with mandatory training.”

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Arindam Majumder in New Delhi
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