Two Air India pilots put the lives of 166 passengers on a Bangkok-Delhi flight in danger by taking a 40-minute break from the cockpit and getting two stewardesses to operate the plane in their absence. Their stunt almost ended in disaster after one of the stewardesses accidentally turned off the auto-pilot, forcing the pilots to rush back to their seats.
The incident took place 33,000 feet in the air on Air India flight AI 133 (an Airbus 321) from Bangkok to Delhi on April 12, which took off from Bangkok on schedule, at 8.55 am.
Thirty minutes later, First Officer Ravindra Nath excused himself from the cockpit for a bathroom break and got airhostess J Bhatt to occupy his seat in his absense. “According to the guidelines it is a standard procedure to ensure the presence of second person in the cockpit so that if the pilot is not able to operate the aircraft for some reason, the other crew member in the cockpit can immediately call for the other pilot. But what actually happened after this made a mockery of air safety,” said a a source in Air India, who did not wish to be named.
Minutes after his co-pilot left the cockpit, Captain B K Soni called another stewardess, Kanika Kala, and asked her to take his seat. Captain Soni did not leave the cockpit immediately; instead, he spent a few minutes teaching the two stewardesses how to operate the aircraft.
He left the cockpit after putting the plane on auto-pilot, leaving the stewardesses to operate the flight by themselves for the next 40 minutes while he and his co-pilot took a nap in business class.
Putting an aircraft on auto-pilot does not exempt pilots from remaining in the cockpit; their presence is required to monitor the flight’s status and turn off auto-pilot if required. This was illustrated perfectly when Captain Soni and First Officer Nath were forced to rush back to their seats after one of the stewardesses accidentally switched off the auto-pilot, engangering the lives of everyone on board.
“A senior cabin crew member witnessed the entire drama unfold and brought the matter to the notice of the airline’s management. All four were derostered and later suspended for this violation,” added the Air India source.
Director General Arun Mishra of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), confirmed that all four employees had been suspended. “Following a safety violation, the airline has already suspended the people in question. We are conducting a inquiry into the matter,” Mishra told Mumbai Mirror.
Captain Mohan Ranganathan, member of a government-appointed aviation safety panel, blamed the ‘lackadaisical attitude’ of the DGCA for the increase in air safety violations. “The DGCA should be held responsible for the increase in such cases as they have failed time and again to effectively enforce safety guidelines,” said Ranganathan.