Discrimination by Alitalia

Alitalia tells man he's unfit to fly
- By Lakshmi B. Ghosh

New Delhi, Sept. 3: In a startling and clear case of class bias, the Italian national airline Alitalia refused to allow a Delhi resident to fly business class to Milan, on his way to Brazil to attend an international conference, despite the fact that the passenger had a valid ticket and all his travel documents were in order.

The reason: Santraj Maurya, who made a living out of collecting waste on Delhi's streets, and whose streetsmart leadership skills had attracted the attention of an NGO which was sending him to attend a conference on the impact of privatisation on waste pickers worldwide, did not — in the airline's view — fit the profile of a businessman or an international traveller.

Santraj's dreams of travelling to Brazil came crashing when he arrived at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport on August 22 to check in for the Alitalia flight to Milan. A delay in getting his visa had resulted in no economy class tickets being available, but Chintan, the Delhi NGO which was sending him to the conference, went ahead and bought him a business class ticket. The seminar at Belo Horizonte in Brazil was too good an opportunity for Santraj, and the NGO did not want to spoil his chances.

On reaching the airline's check-in counter at the airport, he was asked for his passport and tickets. When Santraj produced the documents, he was questioned on how he had managed to get a business class ticket. "There was a gentleman named Nishant Sood who was on duty at that time. He asked me why I wanted to go to Brazil, and I explained it was for the conference. Then he told me that I would not be allowed to travel business class because I did not look like a businessman. I was told I should refund the money for the ticket and go home," recalls Santraj.

The story does not end there. When Santraj tried to convince the airline officials that they could check with Chintan's coordinator Lavanya Marla about his credentials, the request was turned down.

"They told me that I should leave the airport and asked a lady to come and take me out. She wrote my name down in a register and literally forced me out," added Santraj.

Chintan says that such behaviour by the airline was completely unacceptable. "If the airline had given us a logical reason why this man was being turned out, we would have understood. Alitalia officials were rude and reluctant to talk. Even after I explained the matter to them, they refused to hear us. The point is: if there is a policy on who they want to fly and who they don't, why is this not made public," asked Ms Marla.

When contacted, Alitalia's Nishant Sood refused to come on the phone line, and the staff at the airline's IGI counter said they were not authorised to comment on the matter. Despite repeated attempts by this newspaper to obtain Alitalia's account of what had happened, no senior airline official could be contacted.

For Chintan, an NGO which is involved with the lives of 10,000 waste recyclers in and around Delhi, the fight is far from over. It is considering taking legal action against Alitalia, and wants the airline to make public its code of who can fly and who cannot.

Santraj, the man in the middle, has, however, lost hope. "What does it matter what they say now. The conference is over anyway. I guess it was just not in my destiny. So let it be that way," he said.