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India’s social divisions erupt on flights, and women bear the brunt

People board a plane at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on April 9, 2019. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

NEW DELHI — It was a case that shocked India and was soon news around the world — India’s vice president for Wells Fargo allegedly peed on an elderly woman during an Air India flight from New York to New Delhi.

The incident took over India’s prime-time television, with one channel broadcasting at least 70 segments on the topic since Jan. 5 — including using graphics to re-create the scene. It dominated the front pages of India’s top Hindi- and English-language papers.

The man, who was subsequently fired, was branded the “infamous urinator” by the well-known anchor Barkha Dutt, and commentators bemoaned “the Indian passengers,” calling them the worst in the world. Members of parliament weighed in and prominent political players used the incident to bring up past accusations of rivals.

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But the Nov. 26 Air India flight was only the latest eye-grabbing headline about air incidents over the past few months. As flight travel surges past pre-covid levels, the string of cases — often with women bearing the brunt — has touched a nerve in India as age-old gender issues emerge in the confined space of the most modern form of mass travel.

As covid-19 restrictions loosened, air rage and shocking incidents during flights became a staple of headlines worldwide, particularly in the United States. Without official aviation data on passenger misbehavior in India, however, it’s unclear whether there is a rise in cases, or if the proliferation of smartphones and social media is causing more scrutiny of a long-standing problem.

Meghna Sahu, who has worked for two of India’s low-cost carriers as a flight attendant over the past three years, is relieved that the issue is finally garnering the attention it deserves. She witnesses an “unruly passenger” every working day, with major fights taking place once every three months or so.

“It has become the norm. Customers think that whatever fit they throw, I am supposed to take it because they are paying,” the 26-year-old based in Hyderabad said. “What they forget is, I am a human being.”

One of the most frustrating misconceptions for Sahu is that passengers think crew like her are primarily meant to serve them, when in fact they are trained with safety as the priority. A passenger once told Sahu: “My servant is faster than you,” leaving her in tears.

“They really test your patience sometimes. You sometimes want to give it back to them, but you realize it’s not worth it,” Sahu said. “You don’t buy me. You buy the seat. You don’t have any right to disrespect me at any point in time.”

A video that circulated in mid-December showed an intense verbal altercation between a male passenger and a female flight attendant on a domestic low-cost flight. The woman’s voice struck a chord with many: “I am not your servant,” she screamed at the passenger.

The stories have piled up: A flight from Paris to New Delhi saw a man peeing on the blanket of a female passenger as well as another person described, as drunk and unruly, smoking in the lavatory. A physical fight broke out between male passengers on a December flight from Bangkok to India — an air route notorious for disorderly conduct. Just last week news broke that a member of parliament from Bangalore opened the emergency exit of an airplane before takeoff, forcing all the passengers to leave the plane.

In the latest development on the Air India case, the defendant’s legal team is claiming that the woman peed on herself, adding that she’s a dancer and incontinence is a problem in her profession.

“Whatever Indian norms exist, they are playing out on flights. … It’s a microcosm of the kind of social churn we are seeing in our country,” said Shrayana Bhattacharya, who wrote the book “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh,” which included the experiences of many flight attendants.

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She found stories of men unwilling to listen to female authority, casually browsing porn on their phones and displaying their machismo in the air in many different ways. In a country where house cooks and cleaners are common — roles often held by women — Bhattacharya sees the altercations as an indication of how Indians treat workers who serve.

“These flights — they’re a social melting pot. What is that flight? That flight is India,” she said. “It is the inequality and the social gulf between people.”

Air travel in India was once a more high-end and glamorous affair, with the sari-clad hostesses of the former national carrier as cultural icons. As ambassadors of India, they were commonly the centerpieces of Air India’s advertisements and vintage calendars, showcasing the country’s elite culture. At the same time, they have long battled for the right to keep their jobs after marrying and to take on managerial positions.

India’s air sector has had the fastest and most consistent growth globally, becoming the third-largest civil aviation market in 2018, according to the International Air Transport Association. The industry has been expanding rapidly to reach the vast country’s smaller towns, and even as the liberalization of the sector has brought India’s middle class on board, the crews remain majority women.

Flights are one of the rare forms of travel in India that don’t have a separate compartment for women. Metros and local trains have designated female sections, while Indian railways try to ensure that women traveling alone are seated near families and away from solo male passengers. Even local and long-distance buses can have seats assigned by gender.

Amid the spate of reports on disruptive passengers, retired pilot Shakti Lumba — who helped jump-start India’s most successful low-cost carrier, IndiGo, and headed an arm of Air India — highlighted the broader disruptions happening in India’s aviation industry. The national carrier was recently privatized, ticket fares often dip lower than business costs, and at least 13 airlines shut their doors in the past two decades, according to a business outlet.

Just as other countries are undergoing their own aviation chaos as travel returns in the wake of the pandemic, Lumba said this might be India’s own “post-covid” air travel disarray.

He said airlines will need to train their cabin crew in the soft skills required to deal with the new realities. “It’s more the entitled, Indian male than anything else,” he said. “ … You can’t say, ‘How do I bring these incidents down?’ You have to say, ‘How do I handle these incidents better?’”

Karuna Nundy, a lawyer known for her gender-focused cases, said that with basic dignity rarely guaranteed in the country, everyone is fighting for their place and to show they are better than others.

“Often it’s just men treating women poorly. It’s a naked abuse of power with little redress up in the air,” she said.

Despite this turbulence, Sahu, the cabin crew member, said she plans to build a long-term career in aviation.

“Flying is like a drug,” she said. “Once a cabin crew always a cabin crew. You know there are some things that give you an adrenaline rush? Maybe this is that for me.”