Don’t submit false affidavits
Pushpa Girimaji

Long international journeys can be quite tiresome and uncomfortable. It is for this reason that passengers who can afford it, prefer to travel first class so that they can at least stretch their legs and be as comfortable as possible within the confined space of an aircraft. Here is a case of a senior citizen, 72-year-old doctor, who, despite buying a business class ticket, was denied the comforts of even the economy class. Worse, he was forced to fly from Mumbai to London without the mandatory seat belt. As if that was not enough, the airline responded to his complaint by offering him an upgrade to first class the next time he travelled with them.

That, I would say, is the height of optimism—to think that even after the way he was treated by the airline, the passenger would ever use their services again. The conduct of the state-owned international carrier, Air India, in this whole episode smacks of arrogance. It is also an indication of lack of accountability within the airline for negligent services. Dr Vinayak Nagesh Shrikhande, who had paid Rs 1, 46,000 and bought a "J" class ticket to travel from Mumbai to New York, boarded the Air India Boeing aircraft at the Mumbai international airport.

Soon after the seat belt sign was switched off, the passenger tried to put his seat in a reclining position so that he could relax. That’s when he realised that the seat was defective. It would not move. He was told by the crew that the seat had been defective for several weeks. While the crew, including the pilot, tried to adjust the seat, even the seat belt got stuck. So much so that for the rest of the journey from Mumbai to London, the passenger had to sit straight and travel.

But worse, against all air safety norms, he had no seat belt to hold him to his seat during landing at London or during travel when the weather got rough. The experience was so traumatic and frightening that the doctor, who had had an open-heart surgery only an year ago, had to travel without sleep and at great discomfort. On his return, Dr Shrikhande sent a complaint to Air India—his main contention was that the cabin staff of flight number AI 101 was aware of the malfunctioning of the seat, yet they made no effort to ensure that the seat was not allotted to anyone. Nor did they bother to get the seat repaired before the scheduled departure.

The airline’s response was shocking, to say the least. It offered the passenger, as a conciliatory measure, an upgrade from business class to first class, the next time he flew Air India. Subsequently, it modified the offer to a complimentary business class or first class ticket from Mumbai to Dubai or Mumbai to Delhi. In a subsequent letter, it informed him that the airline had put in place a process which would block the sale of defective seats.

Expressing strong displeasure over the behaviour of the airline, the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission in Maharashtra directed the airline to refund the cost of the ticket from Mumbai to London and also pay Rs 2 lakh as compensation. But more important, it issued a notice to General Manager (legal) of the airline T. Narindra Kumar as to why perjury proceedings should not be initiated against him for filing a false affidavit stating that the seat in question was not defective.

The apex court, before which Air India filed an appeal, agreed with the state commission’s finding that there was deficiency in the service provided by Air India. As for the false affidavit submitted by Kumar, the apex court said the execution of the order had been stayed, subject to payment of Rs 1,75,000 to the complainant. "We direct Air India to conduct enquiry internally and take necessary action against T.Narinder Kumar," the commission said.

Much more than the award of compensation for deficient service, this order should send out a clear message to all those who take consumer courts lightly and try to escape liability for deficient service by producing false affidavits. Two years ago, the apex court had imposed punitive damages of Rs 1.5 lakh on Reliance India Mobile Limited for giving false information in the affidavit submitted to the court. The state commission had awarded punitive damages of Rs 50,000, which had been enhanced to Rs 1.5lakh by the apex court. The court had directed that Rs 50,000 should be paid to the consumer, and the rest be deposited with the Consumer Welfare Fund.