‘You Better Wait, We’re VIPs’

Leh Airport Drama  ; Aviation Minister apologises, PMO seeks report

New Delhi: A major controversy erupted on Thursday after reports that three members of a family were offloaded from a Leh-Delhi flight to accommodate Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, J&K Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh and an aide, forcing the government to apologise.

The stories have cast a fresh spotlight on India’s “VIP culture,” a cocoon of comfort that surrounds top officials when they travel by air and road, to the chagrin and often the inconvenience of workaday citizens.

As the media highlighted the incident the Prime Minister’s Office sought a report from the Civil Aviation Ministry.

While Rijiju apologised for the inconvenience caused the passengers, Nirmal Singh remained unapologetic and instead targeted the pilot and other AI staff members, alleging misbehaviour.

The incident occurred on 24 June when Rijiju, MOS for Home Affairs, his assistant and Nirmal Singh were to travel from Leh to Delhi. To accommodate them, three members of the family of an IFS officer, including a child, were disallowed from boarding the flight AI-446, according to reports. This also delayed the flight.

The revelation came days after a similar report which said that an Air India flight to Newark from Mumbai was delayed by nearly an hour on 29 June as an aide of Fadnavis did not have valid US visa.

“As Civil Aviation Minister, I apologise to all those affected (by these incidents),” Ashok Gajapathi Raju told a press conference in New Delhi this evening, in an attempt to end the controversy.

He said if any rules had been violated, “we will ask why it happened and that it should not happen.”

Rijiju also tendered an apology even as he insisted that he was not aware of some others not being allowed to board.

“Air India, being a government PSU, we as ministers, have the moral responsibility if any passenger has undergone any inconvenience. We must say sorry to them on behalf of the government and ensure that such incidents do not occur in future,” PTI quoted him saying.

Nirmal Singh, however, was unapologetic, saying he had “not misused” his status and in turn accused the pilot of misbehaving with him. He termed the allegations against him as “media trial” and said the question about deboarding should be asked to the airlines.

While tendering an apology, the Civil Aviation Minister said such “indefensible” incidents should never have happened.

“Whatever has happened should not have happened…I need to get to the truth… as civil aviation minister I apologise (for the inconvenience caused to the passengers),” he said while responding to a volley of questions on the twin incidents involving Rijiju and Fadnavis.

The minister said the original schedule departure time of the flight AI-446 was 1115 hours on 24 June and boarding time was 1045 hours. Boarding card of Nirmal Singh, who was accompanying Rijiju, is a “proof”, he said.

He said as per the original programme, he was supposed to take a BSF helicopter from Leh to Jammu and from there to travel by normal flight to reach Delhi.

“Because of the bad weather, the BSF helicopter could not take off from Jammu and Leh administration was asked to book a ticket in last flight from Leh to Delhi. This is normal routine arrangements in bad weather or kind of situations for VIPs protocol,” he said.

Rijiju said a complaint has been lodged by the Deputy Chief Minister to the Civil Aviation Minister regarding the advancement and “misbehaviour” of the Air India pilot.

The Minister said his boarding pass was not retained for evidence because he never knew that it would required for this day. “But the Deputy Chief Minister kept as a record to produce as evidence for the complaint,” he said.

Nirmal Singh targeted the pilot and other staff of the Leh-Delhi flight of 24 June involved in the controversial development, alleging rude behaviour and complained to the Civil Aviation Minister about it in a letter to him.

“It is media trial. You are doing injustice to democracy. We are targeted because of being politicians. We have not misused our powers. This is wrong perception which is being spread. I am not going to accept it,” Singh told reporters on a sidelines of an event in Udhampur in J&K.

“We have no authority to de-board anybody. We did not do it. Just ask this question to Air India. We did not know about it,” he said.

Asked whether he would apologise for VVIP ‘racism’ and incident, the Deputy Chief Minister said “apology should come from Air India. They have also to apologise to me also for the misbehavior of their pilot with me”.

On the issue of delay caused to the flight, he said, “I reached well before time and doors of plane had been shut before that by the pilot. Pilot misbehaved with me. It took off later at the right time and reached Delhi 10 minutes before its scheduled time. It was announced by the pilot.”

He said, “It is an established norm of the government to accommodate the Ministers flying for immediate meetings.”

Defending Rijiju, Singh said he was to travel to Delhi due to urgency. “He (Rijiju) was scheduled to fly in a BSF chopper but it could not materialise in view of bad weather,” he added.

Maintaining that “this has been done by Air India as per rules which we were told,” Singh said, “He (Rijiju) is a Union Minister. He has to attend the assignments next day. I had to participate in a programme of smart cities chaired by the Prime Minister in Delhi. I had no alternative. There was no flight after that and Rijiju also had assignment next day and he is a Z+ protectee and it is a rule.”

“Such an incident has taken place even at Yemen…. It is a rule what we have been told,” he added.

“But media is making a mountain out of mole hill. The passengers were on LTC. We have not forced them to de-board. It is very wrong report. We reached there. Our seats were vacant and we sat there,” he said.

Rijiju, Nirmal faced ire of pilot, passengers

New Delhi: It was not a smooth flying experience for Union minister Kiren Rijiju and  Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh as they had to face pilot and passengers ire after they boarded the Leh-Delhi flight, which got delayed after they arrived late in the airport.

Sources said when Rijiju and Singh reached the tarmac of the Leh airport on June 24, an agitated Rohan Saharan, the pilot of AI 446, came down from the aircraft through the ladder and confronted them saying because of their late arrival, the flight was held up and not allowed to fly.

Saharan shouted at Rijiju and Singh saying because of VIPs like them common people were suffering.

Singh shouted back and told the pilot that he should behave properly and that he (Dy CM) would lodge a complaint against Saharan with the Air India and the Civil Aviation Ministry for his “misbehaviour”.

When Rijiju and Singh finally entered the aircraft, they again had to encounter some angry passengers who were unhappy over the delay of the flight for nearly an hour.

Here also, Singh explained to the passengers that they had no knowledge about the advancing of the flight and that was reason for their delayed arrival.

However, the Union minister kept mum on both the occasions. “Rijiju did not react to the pilot’s shouting, or to the passengers’ angry reaction and kept mum,” a source said.

While Rijiju today apologised for the inconvenience caused the passengers, Singh remained unapologetic and instead targeted the pilot and other AI staff members, alleging misbehaviour.

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