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By Tara Ollapally February 23, 2023

Flying high - A Mediator's hope for India

As the world celebrates Air India’s historic 500 plane deal and Air India prepares itself to dominate the airline industry again, I am a proud Indian. As a professional mediator, I am still struck by the recent debacle of the inebriated Air India passenger urinating on a fellow passenger hitting the front pages of all the leading newspapers and the situation having to go to court for resolution.

In my view, this situation is a classic case of poor dispute management protocols at all levels. All stakeholders in this story have ended up ‘losers’– Air India hitting headlines for the completely wrong reasons; the inebriated man losing his job, being publicly humiliated and being arrested; the elderly woman being counter attacked with an accusation of having urinated on herself.

As a mediator who works with people in dispute to find solutions through a process of understanding, empathy and connection, I believe disputes happen for a reason – it is a call out for a change in the current ways of relating and operating. The manner in which we respond to dispute is what differentiates it from a being a point of opportunity and growth as opposed to a point of stagnation, destruction and hurt.

Air India crew’s response mechanisms are clearly in need for change. The inability of the crew to respond in-flight to a humiliating, traumatic and highly unusual situation in an empathetic, respectful and quick manner highlights policies and protocols that are restrictive, disempowering and callous.

Once on the ground, these two traumatized people – Mr. Shankar and the elderly woman – were clearly not handled with care. The elderly woman was not ready to confront Mr. Shankar. She shares in her letter “I stated clearly that I did not want to interact with him or see his face….however the crew brought the offender before me against my wishes and we were made to sit opposite each other.”

Despite the fact that she was not ready to engage in this conversation – who would be after a 15 hour flight albeit a traumatic 15 hour flight – Mr. Shankar’s genuine disbelief and shock at his actions moved her and she “told him that his actions were inexcusable, but in the face of his pleading and begging….I found it difficult to insist on his arrest or press charges against him”

So how did events blow up from this to pressing of charges, arrest warrant, public humiliation and no resolution? Clearly the company was unable to respond in a way that respected and addressed the needs of the parties. I propose here that a process like mediation would have served Air India very well in this situation.

What is mediation?

Mediation is a voluntary process in which the parties make decisions together based on an understanding of their own views, each other’s, and the reality they face. The mediator works as a non-coercive neutral to help the parties negotiate an agreement that serves them better than their alternatives.

Had Air India access to a trained, skilled professional mediator to (1) understand the perspectives of the elderly woman, Mr. Shankar as well as Air India staff’s in a meaningful, connected, non-judgmental way (2) help each of them understand the other’s perspectives (3) facilitate difficult conversations between the elderly woman,
Mr. Shankar and Air India staff (4) engage in a process of understanding alternatives and reality testing including the reality of a legal process (5) brainstorm solutions that are agreeable to all (5) monitor the implementation of the solutions – all in a confidential, safe, trusted environment – I daresay the situation would have turned out very differently.

As mediators my colleagues and I have experienced innumerable transformations – parties coming in angry, hurt, destructive and through a process of being heard and understood engage in a process of negotiation to find solutions that work for them and move forward with freedom. Mediators work with parties to structure solutions that meet the needs of the parties. In this case for example a mediator could have worked with Mr. Shankar to structure an authentic full apology. Elements of a full apology include :

  • accepting responsibility for his irresponsible and horrendous act
  • acknowledging the impact of his action on the elderly woman
  • identifying ways to repair/remedy the situation
  • genuinely promising change and
  • seeking forgiveness.

The mediator would have also worked with Air India to identify meaningful ways to ‘compensate’ the elderly woman so she felt an acknowledgement of her trauma as well as a restoration of her dignity.

Air India must prepare itself for more difficult, unusual and uncomfortable situations. These are inevitable fall outs of human interactions. The test of the company lies in their ability to set systems in place that allows for process like mediation to step in early in the dispute cycle so difficult situations can lead to transformation as opposed to ill will and harm. Disputes have an inherent capacity to escalate – unless companies equip themselves to be ‘dispute wise’ i.e anticipate and design systems that can de-escalate and respond quickly in a compassionate way – more such debacles will hit newspaper headlines.

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