A friend in Melbourne sent me a stimulating email recently about a novel experience inside the SriLankan Airlines, single aisle Airbus 320, Karachi-Colombo Flight (UL184). The incident which occurred on 8 March has been already been brought to the notice of the Director Flight Security of the airline by a passenger, who witnessed the incident inside the economy class cabin of this single aisle aircraft.
It is necessary to emphasise, at the outset of this article, that neither the passenger nor the writer has any prejudices or racial connotations in highlighting this event, except what the passenger has brought to the attention of the Director of Security about an incident that took place in ‘God’s land,’ the repetition of such behaviour, which may lead towards setting a precedence in future flights, on any airline, for that matter. The passenger has advised SriLankan Airlines to take serious note of the possibility of evil masterminds, who might imitate such behaviour to plan acts of terrorism, where they consistently gather intelligence about weaknesses in flight security operations that would give them an opening to perform terrorist acts!
Air travel has become one of the fastest modes of transport in the jet age, from one destination to another even around the world in twenty-four hours. Air travel, as a part of travel for pleasure or on business, has become much safer than other modes of transport.
Air accidents, by far, are rare, yet there have been certain instances where human error or sheer negligence on the part of pilots, technical hitches and or poor maintenance from engineering sections of airlines, and terrorist attacks becoming accountable. In this respect, it needs to be highlighted that SriLankan Engineering has become a holder of the prestigious EASA 145 certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency, and was recognized as the Best Global Operator of both A330 and A340 from the Airbus Industry in 2012.
Experience inside an aircraft during a stormy weather or turbulent conditions could be quite nerve-wracking. The skill of the pilot depends on how he controls his aircraft during take-off and particularly during landing operations in order that passengers do not feel uncomfortable. By the same token the cabin crew takes the responsibility for cosiness and the security of passengers.
Praying on the aisle.
When this aircraft had reached the cruising altitude, and the seat belt signs had gone off, a Muslim passenger had blocked the aisle between the economy and business class cabins (the curtain between the cabin was closed), placed a prayer mat on the floor and started performing his ritual prayer, thus blocking the single aisle of this small aircraft.
A lady steward having noted this unusual behaviour of the passenger in the economy class cabin failed to act. This was followed by a steward emerging from the business class cabin and drawing the curtain, while another standing passenger had gestured the steward to wait until his friend finished his prayer routine. Despite the steward’s advice and the lady steward’s comments that such praying was non-acceptable on board a plane, the standing passenger had continued to block the passage, while the other continued to conduct his prayers.
This has created a situation where the economy class passenger in a front row taking charge of a section of the cabin of this single aisle aircraft for the purpose of conducting a prayer ritual. The plane was full of passengers from Pakistan, who had shown signs of appreciation about the prayer routine. Thankfully, the prayer session had ended, and the aisle was free, and the rest of the flight was normal and peaceful.
The passenger, who observed the drama, had written to the Director Flight Security, SriLankan Airlines, pointing this out as an extremely serious incident. The writer speaking to the passenger found out that he is a regular Karachi-Colombo sector flier who said that he had observed previously too, passengers attempting to conduct prayer rituals, but only at the back of the plane without inconveniencing other passengers. His emphasis was that no other international airline would ever permit such an act!
Islamic tradition dictates that Muslims must perform five formal prayers daily. A missed prayer is a serious event for them, and not one that should be dismissed as inconsequential.
Practicing Muslims are expected to acknowledge every missed prayer and to make it up according to accepted practice, later. While it is understood that there are times when prayer is missed for unavoidable reasons, the door to repentance is always open. If a prayer is missed, it is common practice among Muslims to make it up as soon as it is remembered, or as soon as they are able to do so.
Depending on the circumstances, during the defined prayer times, one could always conduct one’s prayers while even being seated.This also brings up a controversial issue about the direction in which prayer is offered while seated or praying inside a moving plane. It is an accepted fact that Muslims should face the Qubla, which is in Mecca, when prayer is offered. Inside a moving plane, at an altitude of 33,000 feet above ground level, how is it possible to ascertain the direction of the Qubla? It is a universal veracity that every person is free to practice his own religion, but to do so, by disturbing another’s composure should be frowned upon.
With this passenger’s previous experience on PIA flights on domestic routes, he states that he had never observed such rituals conducted on the aisle of an aircraft. He is absolutely certain that even the PIA staff would firmly have dealt with such a problem, if it were to take place on a PIA flight.
The question that arises out of this incident is whether SriLankan Airlines staff are not trained and instructed to act in order to avoid any friction or tension between staff and passengers who seek to demonstrate religious fervour? The airline’s responsibility should be to train the cabin crew to deal with such situations during their training sessions on the ground, but certainly not inside a flight, up in the sky.
With ethno-religious conflict frequently occurring in Sri Lanka, an aircraft in flight could be an ideal platform for a committed group to draw attention to a cause. The more frightening scenario would be, if a fanatical group, with suicidal tendencies, were to create mayhem by taking control of the cabin, it would jeopardise the safety of passengers, cabin crew and the aircraft.
As a passenger who had to gone through this unusual experience, he has sincerely informed the Director Flight Security, that his narrative was not meant to be anti-Pakistani or anti-Muslim. He is married to a Pakistani lady, and his son, he says, was born in Pakistan and he is a frequent traveller who has cultivated “wonderful Pakistani friends and enjoys an excellent relationship with the power sector professionals in Pakistan”.
Having travelled to many parts of Pakistan, he admires and acknowledges the friendly nature of the Pakistani people, and describes the country itself as an incredible adventure travel destination.
Pakistanis are weighed down with a monstrous negative socio-political baggage with the country consistently drawing bad publicity worldwide. If any person personally experiences such a situation inside a flight, that person is bound to have zero tolerance in the face of such undisciplined individuals who seek to rub their mind-sets on others’ faces. The million-dollar question is whether anyone would be comfortable in an aircraft when a passenger acts in a manner that disturbs the composure of a full complement of passengers in terms of the security of the aircraft in flight?
Pic. Credit: Ceylon Today