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Late for a flight? No problem for Indian 'VIPs'

Show up late for a flight in India, like in most countries, and you can expect the plane to depart without you.

But that wasn’t the case for senior government officials in two separate incidents recently in which commercial flights were delayed to accommodate their late arrivals, according to passengers and Indian media reports.

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 Indians.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office on Thursday called for a report on the most recent delayed flights, both of which involved Air India, the much-maligned state-run carrier used by government personnel for official travel. The civil aviation minister issued an apology to “all those affected” by the postponements.

On June 24, an Air India flight from the Himalayan town of Leh to New Delhi, the capital, departed nearly an hour late because Kiren Rijiju, a minister in Modi’s Cabinet, and a second official arrived late to the airport. Reports said the officials picked up their boarding passes at 11 a.m., 40 minutes after the flight’s scheduled departure time.

News media obtained an Indian Air Force report that said the airport director had instructed the airline to delay the flight “to accommodate a VIP.”

Making matters more embarrassing for Rijiju, Air India said three passengers were taken off the plane to accommodate the minister and Nirmal Singh, the deputy chief executive of Jammu and Kashmir state.

Rijiju has denied delaying the flight, while Singh said he was told the departure was at 11:40 a.m. and called the Air India pilots “rude” for changing the schedule.

“I am totally unaware whether anyone was asked” to deplane, Rijiju said at a news conference Thursday. “If it was done, it is completely wrong and unacceptable.”

The Leh airport, a high-security facility operated by the Indian military, has the highest elevation of any passenger air terminal in India. Aviation experts said delaying the flight  could have posed a safety risk: In summer, flights are supposed to leave earlier in the day because planes have more difficulty taking off from the airport’s short runway as air temperatures rise.

Earlier this week, a flight from Mumbai to New York was reportedly held up for more than 90 minutes because a top aide to the chief minister of Maharashtra state forgot to bring his U.S. visa. The chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, who was traveling to the United States on a trade mission, denied the reports and blamed technical reasons for the delay.

In February, a domestic flight from New Delhi was delayed because a politician from the opposition Indian National Congress Party reportedly arrived late after a shopping trip.

After Modi took office in May 2014, his government pledged to trim the ranks of “VIPs” who are exempted from security checks and receive other perks at airports. One of the most controversial names on the list was Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Indian National Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, who lost his privileges last year.

The new reports have triggered an uproar among opposition politicians and citizen groups. Indian National Congress Party politician P.L. Punia called on Modi to “break his silence on the VIP culture of his ministers.”



7:09 a.m.: An earlier version of this article referred to the National Congress Party. The references should have been to the Indian National Congress Party.


Civil aviation authorities have demanded an explanation from Air India, but analysts say the carrier is beholden to the country’s bloated ranks of so-called VIPs.

“Such instances do not happen with other airlines,” said Rohit Chandavarkar, a journalist and aviation expert. “It shows that despite the [attempts at] privatization and corporatization of Air India, it is still under the control of politicians and bureaucrats.”

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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