Monday, February 20, 2012

Air India finally admits that it gave bigger plane to Praful Patel’s family

The loss-making public carrier widened its losses by running with less seats while accommodating the minister's family, which was termed as ‘impropriety and favoritism in aborting the flight on the behest of an influential person or persons in violation of the rules’ by the CIC

Air India, the reluctant 'Maharaja' of the Indian aviation sector has finally admitted that it provided a bigger aircraft to ferry, the then civil aviation (and current heavy industries) minister Praful Patel's family and associates from Bangalore to Male and back. In order to keep the change of airplane and passengers name under the carpet, the Maharaja even tried to challenge the Chief Information Commissioner's (CIC) own order.

The case dates back to April 2010, when the reports about change in airplane by Air India, to accommodate the minister's kin appeared. According to report published in Mail Today on 29 April 2010, Air India deployed a larger aircraft than the scheduled one just to ensure that Mr Patel's daughter Avni, her husband Prashant Deshpande and her in-laws could fly business class to Male, the capital of Maldives. This was done under pressure from the civil aviation ministry, the newspaper said.

For the regular Bangalore-Male flight IC-965, Air India plies an Airbus A-319, which has eight business class seats and 114 economy class seats. Since seven of the eight seats on that flight were already booked, all seven members of the Deshpande family could not have been all accommodated in the business class. Therefore, a larger aircraft-an Airbus A-320 with 20 business and 125 economy class seats-was deployed for the 25th April Bangalore-Male flight that resulted in 53 seats (six business class and 47 economy class) going vacant. The same aircraft returned to Bangalore with 57 seats vacant, the report said.

Reading the newspaper report, Right to Information (RTI) activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, on 26 March 2011, filed an application seeking detailed information of the aircraft change to accommodate the minister's family. Air India, however declined to reveal the names of the passengers on the flight citing commercial interests and invasion of privacy of an individual. It also refused to divulge details on the aircraft change saying that such decisions are taken based on its commercial requirements depending on the booked load or demand and also due to operational or engineering requirements.

Mr Agrawal challenged Air India's decision of not divulging information. On 23 February 2011, Sushma Singh, Central Information Commissioner (CIC) ordered the airline to provide the requested information to Mr Agrawal. "...public interest in disclosure of the sought for information overweighs the harm to the protected interest, as impropriety and favouritism in aborting the flight on the behest of an influential person or persons in violation of the rules, has been alleged by the appellant and in the news reports provided by him," the CIC noted in her order.

However, Air India declined to provide complete information and instead asked for a review of the decision by the same CIC, which is not possible under the RTI Act. While a review cannot be sought under RTI Act after a CIC hearing, a court stay order can be obtained. But neither did Air India give the information within the stipulated days, nor did it get a stay order from any court. In the review petition, CPIO at Air India has avoided mentioning the CIC dictat of revealing names of person(s) responsible for the decision of rolling our bigger jets on 25 April 2010 and 28 April 2010 to accommodate the in-laws of Mr Patel's daughter for their trip to the Maldives. (Read more ...Air India shields former minister's families' free ride)
Mr Agrawal challenged Air India's position of not revealing details and review of the CIC decision. His appeal was upheld by the CIC, which again directed the airline to provide details sought by Mr Agrawal. Finally, in a reply on 11 February 2012, Air India admitted that the order to change the aircraft on Bangalore-Male-Bangalore route was issued by Harjeet Sawhney, the then manager (scheduling), commercial headquarters, Mumbai through an email. (Surprisingly, earlier the airline admitted that the decision to switch the aircraft was taken by the central co-ordination cell and the decision intimated telephonically to the concerned personnel.) The email also mentions telecon between Aben Lal and FJ Vaz, the executive director for commercial of Air India.

Air India also provided list of passengers on its flight IC-965 of 25 April 2010 for Bangalore-Male and IC-966 of 28 April 2010 for Male-Bangalore sector. Both the lists include names of Mr Patel's daughter and her family.

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