State-run carrier Air India may have to pay a penalty of $8.8 million to 323 passengers of its May 9 Delhi-Chicago flight, which was delayed as a fallout of withdrawal of relaxations given on flight duty time limitation (FDTL) of the crew.
This incident has brought into focus in a plea by Air India and the Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) which represents private carriers Jet Airways, IndiGo, SpiceJet and GoAir, to the Delhi High Court, seeking modification of its April 18 direction to DGCA to not permit variations in FDTLs.
Flight AI 127 was bound for Chicago on May 9 with a flight time of 16 hours. However, it could not land there on time due to inclement weather and instead was diverted to nearby Milwaukee. The flight duration from Milwaukee to Chicago was 19 minutes.
The flight carrying passengers who had already travelled for 16 hours, could have taken off in two hours and reached Chicago, but what played spoilsport was the duty hour of the crew -- which was already exhausted by then. Due to withdrawal of the variations, only one landing was permitted for the crew that day.
According to Air India sources, the withdrawal of the variation of duty hours by DGCA following a high court order left the airline with no choice but to arrange for fresh crew which was transported by road to Milwaukee to take charge of the flight.
The flight left for Chicago after a delay of over six hours. All this while, the passengers remained onboard the aircraft.
But things did not end there. What caused more problem for Air India was stringent US guidelines, inviting the airline the charge for 'tarmac delay'. According to US guidelines, if passengers are on-board for more than four hours for international flights, the carrier is guilty of 'tarmac delay'.
"The potential penalty to the carrier in such case is USD 27,500 per passenger onboard, and with 323 passengers onboard, the penalty adds up to USD 8.8 million," sources said, adding neither the passengers had to be put through such gruelling ordeal, nor the airline put to such a situation if variation in flying hours was allowed in such "extraordinary circumstances".
Air India referred to this particular incident in its plea before the High Court on May 15. The court has sought the stands of the Centre and aviation regulator DGCA on the plea.
"A diversion by its very nature is unscheduled -- diversion due to medical emergency or any other reason. In such cases unless dispensation (variation) is accorded, flights will be grounded and passengers put to untold hardships. This is not to mention the huge penalties involved," an airline official said.
Among the 323 passengers in this particular flight, 41 were on wheelchair-bound and two infant. There was an autistic child on-board as well. This was her first trip and the paramedics had to be called in at Milwaukee as she was in distress.
Milwaukee airport itself was in distress due to diverted flights and did not have a gate available for the passengers to disembark.
The delay has had a snowballing effect in the entire operation at Chicago as the Delhi-bound flight was delayed by over 28 hours, causing harassment for other passengers who were booked in this flight in subsequent journeys.