Four airlines in India — IndiGo, SpiceJet, Air India and GoAir — have banned stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra from taking their flights after he allegedly heckled television news anchor Arnab Goswami on an IndiGo flight.
In 2017, the government issued rules for preventing disruptive behaviour by air travellers and laid down guidelines for a no-fly list. As per the rules, a complaint of unruly behaviour needs to be filed by the pilot-in-command, and this is to be probed by an internal committee to be set up by the airline. During the period of pendency of the inquiry, the rules empower the concerned airline to impose a ban on the passenger. The committee is to decide the matter within 30 days, and also specify the ban duration.
The rules define three categories of unruly behaviour: Level 1 refers to behaviour that is verbally unruly, and calls for debarment up to three months; Level 2 indicates physical unruliness and can lead to the passenger being debarred from flying for up to six months; Level 3 indicates life-threatening behaviour for which the debarment would be for a minimum of two years.
The Civil Aviation Requirements issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) note that unruly behaviour on board aircraft has been declared an offence and is a punishable act. Even one unruly passenger can jeopardise safety on board. The government kick-started the process of developing these rules after an incident involving then Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad assaulting an Air India staffer on a flight back in 2017. Subsequently, a clutch of airlines banned Gaikwad from travelling on their flights; this was in effect for two weeks. The government came out with the no-fly list in September that year.
A no-fly list essentially begins with a passenger causing verbal, physical or life-threatening unruliness. The DGCA has given an indicative list of actions that may be construed as unruly. These include: consuming alcohol or drugs resulting in unruly behaviour; smoking in an aircraft; using threatening or abusive language towards a member of the crew or other passengers; intentionally interfering with the performance of the duties of a crew member etc. Once the pilot-in-command submits his complaint, the airline is bound to refer the complaint to its internal committee. During the course of the enquiry, the airline can ban the passenger from flying for a maximum period of up to 30 days. In addition, the Ministry of Home Affairs provides a list of individuals identified as national security threats to DGCA and to the airlines, for inclusion in the no-fly list.
The internal committee is to consist of a retired district and sessions judge as Chairman, along with a representative from a different scheduled airline and a representative from a passengers association or consumer association as members. The internal committee shall give the final decision in 30 days by giving the reasons in writing, the rules state, and the decision of the committee shall be binding on the airline concerned. In case the committee fails to take a decision in 30 days, the passenger will be free to fly.
Any aggrieved person, upon receipt of communication of a ban from the airline, may appeal within 60 days from the date of issue of the order, to an Appellate Committee constituted by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, consisting of a retired judge of a High Court as Chairman; a representative from a passengers’ association or a consumer association; and an airlines representative not below the rank of vice-president or equivalent. The rules, however, do not specify the functional details of either the internal committee or the appellate committee, and whether they would invite the accused to make their case. The Civil Aviation Requirements state that the decision of the appellate committee shall be final and that any further appeal shall lie in a High Court.
The same year that the rules were notified, a businessman on a Jet Airways Mumbai-Delhi flight had left a note in in the lavatory, warning there were hijackers and explosives on board. The flight had to make an emergency landing. For the hoax, the businessman became the first person to be put on the no-fly list and also be charged under the new Anti-Hijacking Act, 2016. A special NIA court awarded him life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 5 crore. There have been other instances of unruly behaviour in flights, but neither the concerned airlines nor the government has moved towards putting such passengers on the no-fly list.
So far, four airlines have suspended his flying rights, while Vistara and AirAsia India have said they will review the situation and follow due process. Although IndiGo has announced a six-month ban, a final decision on the severity and duration of the ban rests on the airline’s internal committee following its inquiry.
If a person has been put on the no-fly list of domestic airlines, there is still a possibility that she can take international flights since the DGCA requirement applies only for Indian airlines. Things get complex in case of a codeshare, with one leg of the trip operated by an Indian airline and the other one by an overseas airline.
India is one of the few countries where airlines have been empowered to straight away ban a person from taking their flights. In aviation markets like the US or Canada, the no-fly list is more oriented to be a terror-watch program. In the US, the no-fly list had less than 20 people prior to 9/11, but sky-rocketed to thousands following the attacks. Cases of disruption with unruly behaviour, however, has got people on the no-fly list in the US. In 2016, US-based Delta Airlines banned a passenger for life after he was caught on video shouting profane political comments on its flight.