Aviation rules permit the captain to take decisions for the safety of all passengers 

Aviation: While many sympathised with the ailing passenger who was de-boarded by Drukair on September 25, those in the aviation industry maintain that the captain’s decision was correct.

The ailing passenger, who emanated a strong smell as a result of medical conditions, was de-boarded by the captain of the aircraft after failing to obtain consensus among all 109 passengers on whether to de-board or keep him on the Bangkok-bound flight.

While Drukair in its statement issued on Sunday said no vote had occurred, the ailing passenger’s daughter, Tenzin Dolkar, maintained that two rounds of voting had happened through a show of hands and that in the second round, all but four passengers had raised their hands in favour of keeping her father onboard.

Kuensel has verified that a show of hands was requested at least twice, with a possible third round also occurring, by the captain.

However, both the captain and some passengers said the show of hands was not intended as a vote.

The captain told this paper that he had asked for a show of hands to see if there was a consensus among passengers to either keep the ailing passenger on board or have him de-boarded.

A passenger on the same flight and seated in front of the ailing passenger, Randy Bush, also said that while a show of hands was conducted at least twice, the captain had pointed out prior that it was not a vote. “It is to be noted that he also said that it was not a vote and that it was not a democracy,” he said. “He made clear that there was a serious risk to the flight if one or more passengers became sick because of the smell,” he added. “My impression is that he was left with no recourse when the four remained recalcitrant.”

Randy Bush was not one of the four passengers that complained.

Henry Nung, a Vietnamese passenger also seated in business class and not one of the complainants, said that the captain asked passengers to raise their hands in response to two questions: whether they would accept travelling with the ailing passenger or not.

“It seemed to me more of getting opinion than vote,” Henry Nung said. In the first round, less than 20 people raised their hands for either question, according to Henry Nung. In the second round, even less hands were raised in response to either question. In the third round, no hands were raised when asked if passengers wanted to travel with the ailing passenger but four arms were raised in response to being asked if they did not want to travel with the ailing passenger, said Henry Nung.

“Given the situation with most passengers staying silent, maybe the captain felt that many passengers were not sure,” he said.

He also pointed out that he would have gone with any decision made by the captain.

This version does not fit with Tenzin Dolkar’s story in which all passengers, except for the four, raised their arms to keep her father on board in the second round.

Following this consultation, which took place in the boarding hall of the airport, the captain de-boarded the ailing passenger.

Senior pilots from both airlines said they agreed with the captain’s decision even though it seemed to be choosing between a “rock and a hard place”, according to one. Pilots said the captain had gone beyond his duties in holding a consultation with the passengers and even attempting to persuade those who had protested to keep the ailing passenger on board on humanitarian grounds, as the passenger’s disease was not contagious.

According to aviation regulations, the captain can de-board any passenger if it is felt that the security, safety or comfort of other passengers could be affected during flight, without consulting a third party, in this case, the passengers.

Another passenger seated in first class, Zita Wenzel, also wife of Randy Bush, said that the captain had attempted to cater to both the ailing passenger and the rest of the passengers.

It was Randy Bush and Zita Wenzel, both American citizens who then initiated a collection drive to help the affected family charter a flight. “It was my husband and I that activated the contributions as a best compromise, not Drukair,” Zita Wenzel said.

The ailing passenger and his family flew to Bangkok on a chartered Tashi Air flight on September 28. Tashi Air commercial manager, Ugyen Tenzin, said that the family were informed that either a chartered flight or a medical ambulance aircraft from Thailand were the only two options available to the family. “I don’t think we could have accommodated them on a scheduled flight,” he said.

However, on humanitarian grounds, the family were provided a discounted charter flight for USD 40,400 and free return tickets. The normal rate is around USD 56,000. Half of the amount for the charter or USD 20,000 was paid for by Henry Nung, while around USD 2,000 was contributed by other passengers.

“Prior to re-boarding the plane, I saw the family members crying enormously,” Henry Nung said. “I wanted to give them hope and opportunity to continue their journey without further delay. I said to the family, I will contribute money to ensure their journey to Bangkok.”

Tenzin Dolkar’s father is currently receiving medical treatment in Bangkok. Speaking to Kuensel following a response she penned to Drukair’s press release in which she disputes several points on September 28, she said that she was personally hurt that instead of an apology, the airline had accused her of lying. “The people need to know the truth,” she said.

Meanwhile, a senior pilot questioned how many had been quick to blame the airline and the captain without waiting for Drukair’s version of events. The pilot pointed out that the airline has medically evacuated many patients, irrespective of background, in the past but that based on one incident many, including senior members of society, had judged the airline based only on one version of the story. The pilot added that this is a worrying trend and that it has been observed that some of them had now reversed their comments.

Gyalsten K Dorji