Air India pilot, crew suspended over mid-air 'distraction'

NEW DELHI (AFP) - State-run carrier Air India said on Saturday it had suspended a pilot and two female flight attendants after a passenger jet's autopilot system was accidentally switched off "due to distraction".

The event occurred on an Air India Airbus flight to New Delhi from Bangkok last month carrying over 160 passengers and followed a series of other safety-related incidents involving the airline.

Air India denied media reports the pilot and co-pilot had taken a 40-minute cockpit break to snooze in business class seats and left two attendants in their places to operate the plane in their absence.

But it did say the pilot and two air hostesses had been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation and that the two airline attendants had overstayed the allowed length of time in the cockpit.

There was an "overstay of the cabin crew in the cockpit," the airline said, and "due to distraction the co-pilot had touched the autopilot disconnect button momentarily, but the same was connected back".

The airline did not reveal the nature of the distraction but the Times of India newspaper quoted an unnamed Air India source as saying the crew members' actions had "made a mockery of air safety".

Indian media reports alleged the pilots were giving the flight attendants flying lessons.

"At no point of time was the cockpit left unattended by the cockpit crew," the airline statement added.

Earlier this year, Air India suspended a senior pilot caught drunk just before he was to fly a passenger aircraft. Also in the last few years, authorities have discovered at least half a dozen Indian pilots flying aircraft using faked documents, including an Air India pilot.

Air India is the country's fourth-largest airline by market share and has been hit hard by rising fuel prices and fierce competition from private carriers that have added to its legacy of labour problems and crushing debts.

In March, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN aviation watchdog, expressed grave concerns about India's air safety, placing it among the 13 worst-performing nations.

An investigation into the auto-pilot incident is being carried out by India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

"Following a safety violation, the airline has already suspended the people in question," said the agency.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.