Government regrets flight delays due to minister, staff

New Delhi: Following a central minister and a state official recently causing flight delays and inconvenience to air passengers and the Prime Minister's Office seeking a report on it, Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapati Raju on Thursday expressed regrets and assured that such episodes would not recur.

At a press conference here, Raju said he has called for an investigation into the matter pertaining to the central minister and was awaiting for the first reports to come in before initiating action. He did not spell out what action was contemplated.

"I've called in for information. But since people have been inconvenienced, I as the civil aviation minister of this country offer my apologies. Let the first reports come in. Let us know the truth and I will do my duty," Raju added. At the same time, the minister sought to brush aside the matter.

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"These things routinely happen with all the airlines, not just Air India. In fact, they have been operating on time and serving the Indian skies well," he said, adding that his colleagues were actually complaining that they were missing flights due to Air India's on-time performance. The minister's reaction came after the Prime Minister's Office asked the civil aviation ministry for a report on the delay in two Air India flights on account of VIP travels.

"PMOIndia asks Ministry of Civil Aviation for a report on delay in #AirIndia flights on account of VIP travels in the recent past," Press Information Bureau chief Frank Noronha tweeted. The civil aviation minister said it was in public knowledge that the PMO had inquired about the recent flight delays. "But we have not yet received any formal inquiry from them. But it is expected soon."

The controversy was triggered after three passengers were reportedly taken off an Air India flight at Leh in order to accommodate union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju and an aide last week. On Thursday, Rijiju clarified that he was unaware that an Air India flight was allegedly delayed and three passengers made to de-board to accommodate him and an aide at the last minute.

"Usually, I am informed about all my travel arrangements while I am on an official assignment," Rijiju told IANS from Darjeeling, where he has gone to check the damage caused by landslides in the hill district of West Bengal. "But I can't be blamed for the happening as the Leh administration didn't inform me on what basis they were making the changes to accommodate me on the Air India flight," the minister added.

Earlier this week, an Air India flight from Mumbai to New York, with Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on board, was reportedly delayed by nearly an hour. This was allegedly done to accommodate a member of his entourage. While Fadnavis denied any such hold-up, Air India confirmed the delay, albeit for different reasons.

"The flight AI-191 of 29th of June 15 was delayed by total 57 minutes. The delay was partly due to technical/operational reasons and also due to ATC (air traffic control)," an airline official said in a statement. Senior Air India official told IANS that the government has given clear instructions not to give any undue privileges or advantages to any individual, even government servants or ministers.

"There were many erstwhile practices and protocols that have been stopped. Now no price concession or preference based seats are allotted to anyone. Nor any changes done in the boarding or de-boarding procedures even for VIP travellers," a senior Air India official told IANS here.

"However, some safety practices are still maintained which are mandatory. But the latest incidents have nothing to do with them." Meanwhile, the opposition Congress criticised the government and demanded an apology from the minister who caused inconvenience to passengers. The opposition termed the occurrences as “misdeeds” of the ruling party.

“Just because the prime minister is keeping mum, these issues are not going to be kept under carpet. We demand that the ministers who misused their authority and put ordinary passengers to difficulty and to great hardship should apologize openly,” senior Congress leader P.C. Chako told the media here.

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