The cockpit of an Air India flight was left unmanned after pilots and cabin crew were involved in a brawl at 30,000ft after a stewardess accused a co-pilot of molesting her.
Crew members traded punches in full view of 106 passengers, and at one point the pilot threatened to emergency land the Airbus A320 in Pakistan, which it was flying over.
Air India has grounded the pilots and crew, and launched an inquiry into Flight IC-844 which was flying from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to Delhi.
According to police reports, Commander Ranbeer Arora and Captain Aditya Chopra were accused of trying to “molest” a 24-year-old female flight attendant who resisted their advances and was then thrown out of the cockpit.
In a statement to police, the woman alleged she was “abused and pushed” by the pilots inside the cockpit when she refused to grant “personal favours”.
Another crew member intervened and a fight allegedly broke out. The pilots told police it was a male cabin crew member who had begun to “misbehave” and compromised safety, prompting the fight.
When passions calmed, the pilots and cabin crew continued working as if nothing had happened.
The argument, say reports, began on the ground in the emirate of Sharjah, in the UAE, during a pre-flight briefing. It then, apparently, escalated to punches.
An Air India spokesman said: “The incident of [a] scuffle between the two pilots and cabin crew members of [flight] IC-884 was reported yesterday morning. As there have been claims and counter-claims between the parties involved, the management has ordered an inquiry, which is still in progress. Further action will be decided based on the inquiry report.”
The fight is the latest in a series of disaster for the struggling national flag carrier. Last week executive pilots called off a four-day-old strike, which had grounded the airline’s entire fleet, following government assurances that their salaries will not be cut. The government is trying to stem accumulated losses of around £1.8 billion.
A week earlier, another Air India flight from the city of Amritsar to London had to be delayed by several hours after passengers noticed a rat on board.
In August some 20,000 employees went on a three-day hunger strike over plans to cut their productivity-linked bonuses by up to 50 percent.
These bonus payments account for between a third and a half of the take home pay of the majority of the airline’s employees and cost the airline about £175 million last year.
The airline is also being challenged in the Supreme Court by nine air hostesses it dismissed in January for being overweight.
Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, pledged to support the airline in June, but also insisted that it undergo massive restructuring.
Air India employs about 32,000 people - twice as many as it needs to operate - and critics believe that the only way to make it more efficient is to privatise it.