Saturday, December 16, 2017

Racial slur: Jet Airways probe finds no evidence against expat pilot

Mumbai: An internal probe by Jet Airways has found no evidence against an expat pilot who was accused by cricketer Harbhajan Singh of physically assaulting a woman as well as hurling racist comments at her and a handicapped fellow passenger. 

Jet had sacked Capt Bernd Kain Von Hoesslin and launched a probe after the cricketer's tweets and the woman passenger's social media post on the incident went viral. The pilot has since filed a defamation case, seeking $15 million in compensation with interest from Singh and the passengers. 

The probe report, based on the statements of the other crew members of the flight, said Von Hoesslin called for security as the woman passenger was heard "using expletives" when he questioned her and the fellow passenger about blocking the plane's entrance at the Mumbai airport. 

His intervention was unnecessary as other crew members sorted out the issue and he later apologised to complainants, the report said, concluding that the matter "can be put to rest with no further actions on any members of staff". 

ET has seen a copy of the report, prepared by Narendra Mansukhani, head of guest experience at the airline. Jet declined to comment. 

Von Hoesslin, a 55-year-old pilot with experience of three decades and 14,600 hours of flying, said the report vindicated him, but was late. "The report is the cornerstone of everything" that happened at the incident, he said. "They are all employees of Jet Airways ... who were an eyewitness to the incident." 

What appeared on the Internet was contrary to what transpired in afternoon, Von Hoesslin, a German passport holder, told ET during a recent hour-long chat, recounting the incident on April 3. "We have been trained to be courteous, polite to passengers, especially those who are handicapped. But some point in time flight safety becomes more important," he explained. 

The plane was being refuelled, and simultaneously passengers were boarding it for an onward journey to Chennai. He said from the camera placed in the cockpit he saw the build-up of an altercation between two passengers and his flight crew. Other passengers were getting restive as their entry to the aircraft was blocked. 

"We get paid to look at threat management. When a few untoward things line up an accident happens," he said. 

The two passengers by trying to manoeuvre a battery-powered wheelchair through the main entrance had blocked the entry of other passengers into the aircraft. They were alighting from the plane, which was on a hopping flight from Chandigarh to Mumbai, having boarded the aircraft in Chandigarh. As tempers rose, Von Hoesslin said he decided to restore order. 

The soft-spoken German pilot said he gently tapped the shoulder of the agitated passenger to gain her attention. The situation took a dramatic turn, as the passengers cried that the pilot touched her and that he was rude, he said. He was also accused of using racist language by calling them "bloody Indians". During the chat with ET, Von Hoesslin denied ever using such language. 

The ensuing backlash fuelled by social media and Singh's tweets became a nightmare for Hoesslin. 

"That gentleman (Harbhajan Singh) was not even in the aircraft. Those comments haven't helped me," Von Hoesslin said. 

"I was performing my duties as B737 pilotin-command prescribed by Jet Airways and the DGCA policies which prohibit bringing into the aircraft a private batteryoperated wheelchair thereby blocking two of four main evacuation escapes routes ... more so at the time of the safety-sensitive refuelling operation with passengers on board," the pilot said, justifying his action. This is the first time that he is explaining his version of the events to the media. 

In a damage-control mode, Jet Airways suspended the pilot and later terminated his services. The airline reached out to the two passengers and apologised. 

Singh did not respond to an SMS ET sent to his mobile phone detailing the case. 

Jet Airways, the pilot said, finally handed over the investigation report to him recently, giving him something to stand on. Von Hoesslin said the report vindicated him as the five employees who were in the closest proximity to the event had given testimonies in his favor. 

"I'm not an employee of Jet Airways" anymore, he said, brushing off any suggestion that the five Jet employees would stand up for him because he was their colleague. 

His lawyers said he has removed the airline from the list of defendants in the defamation case and is pursuing the case against the cricketer, the two passengers and a few others who wrongly implicated him. 

The case came up for a hearing at the Bombay High Court earlier this week. Explaining the legal route he has taken to redeem his name in the civil aviation world, Von Hoesslin said: "The process we are going through, we are going closer to the truth." 

Story and comments:

No comments: