What happens when a song and dance goes up in the air?

Asian airlines face flak for entertaining passengers on flight

[Main/Thumb: use shutter stock Image ID: 95769409]

In a recent incident, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a show cause notice to local no-frills carrier SpiceJet and suspended two of its pilots. The airline’s cabin crew had performed a short dance sequence mid-air to the tune of a popular Holi song to mark celebrations of the special day, with some passengers also joining in.

The video of the commander coming out of the cockpit and joining in the bonhomie 35,000 feet up in the air on a flight from Goa to Bangalore went viral on social media. While it was a few minutes of fun for passengers, the commander was found to have violated stipulated safety norms and ended up getting suspended.

In 2012 Finnair celebrated India’s Republic Day (16 January) among the clouds on its flight AY201 from Helsinki to New Delhi. To the passengers’ surprise, the aisles were filled with staff in colourful Indian costumes dancing to a popular bollywood track, Om Shanti Om.  While that particular number had nothing even remotely to do with patriotism, it did make for a memorable experience.

In the same year, Virgin America converted its gangway for an in-flight fashion show in partnership with Banana Republic. Passengers got an up close and personal look at the fashion brand’s Mad Men collection 35,000 feet above ground. The brand sure took the ramp to a whole new high! With male passengers ogling at the female models, and the women passengers ranking the male models, Virgin America made sure its sartorial experiment left no room for complaint.

Perhaps inspired by Virgin America’s success, in August 2012 VietJet Air, a budget Vietnamese airline, organised a mid-air Hawaiian dance performance for its passengers on its inaugural flight from Ho Chi Minh City to the coastal holiday destination of Nha Trang. The video of this unusual high-altitude show, shot by passengers on their phones soon went viral. The bikini-clad girls, contestants in Miss Ngoi Sao, a local beauty contest, might have set the male passengers’ hearts racing and heated up the air a notch or two, but the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam (CAAV) wasn’t impressed. It inflicted a fine of VND 20 million ($1000) because the airlines had not taken permission for the show. In their defence, VietjetAir offered an official diplomatic response, "It was the first flight to a beach town, so we came up with the idea of getting a number of girls in bikinis to dance and make passengers happy to improve our customer service."

A couple of months earlier to that, Cathay Pacific took umbrage when Victoria Beckham posed for a picture in a crew-only seat on one of its Beijing-bound flights from Hong Kong. The former Spice Girl tweeted a photo of what appeared to be her making an announcement on the public address system. Even though the photo wasn’t taken at any critical stage of the flight, such as take-off or landing, it was, according to an airline spokeswoman, "inappropriate as the crew seats are only for the cabin crew and passengers should not be allowed to touch any of the aircraft equipment."

With the popular trend of flash mobs, and mid-air celebrations fast gaining ground in the West, why is the concept still scattered to the four winds in the Asian context? It’s a mixed bag really. While some enjoy the deviation from the standard pre-prepared meal and a slightly dated movie format of inflight entertainment, others consider it a bit of an unnecessary nuisance.

But the airline industry has been resorting to such gimmicks to boost sales and build customer loyalty with their feel good factor.  While Western airlines have been promoting their brand through such guerrilla marketing stunts without much fuss, their Asian counterparts seem to have hit an ‘air pocket’ trying to do the same. Could it be that Asia has stricter expectations of airline behaviour, or a terrible sense of humour?

"We have no objections to live mid-air entertainment. However, if it’s done in a way that compromises with the safety of the passengers, we most definitely won’t allow it and will take the necessary actions to ensure such lapses don’t occur again," an official from DGCA told PRWeek.

By and large, airline authorities in Asia consider safety and security of a flight top priority, and there’s no messing with that. Post 9/11, access to the flight deck is strictly controlled, and pilots are discouraged from venturing out of the cockpit for prolonged periods, bar for physiological or rest (during multiple crew operations) reasons. Under no circumstances can both pilots simultaneously leave the cockpit, leaving the cockpit/aircraft controls unattended.  SpiceJet blundered when its pilots joined the dance routine in mid-air. The pilot in his defence admitted to his mistake. He said he got "carried away" by the music. With Asia’s low-cost carriers facing intense competition with an excess of supply over demand, an airline can’t afford its PR strategies such unfortunate twists in the wind.

But then, incidents like VietJet Air and SpiceJet’s do bring out the human element where someone in the organisation’s PR team is thinking not with his head, but his heart. We could throw caution to the wind and appreciate the thought behind it. But going by the recent MH370 incident, no one wants to vanish into thin air.

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