Pilots on budget airline grounded after photo of their cockpit coffee break goes viral—and sparks major safety concerns

Two pilots working for Indian budget carrier SpiceJet have been grounded after a photo of their coffee break in the cockpit went viral.

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An image that circulated widely on social media in recent days showed an uncovered cup—with the airline’s logo on its side—full of what appears to be tea or coffee balanced precariously close to the airplane’s control levers.


It also showed one of the pilots holding a gujiya, a sweet pastry usually made to celebrate the festival of Holi, which took place on March 8. The second pilot has a pastry balanced on the plane’s controls.

The pilots’ faces were not shown in the picture.

According to Indian media, the picture was taken on board a domestic flight between Delhi and Guwahati last week, as the plane was cruising at around 600 miles per hour.

On Tuesday, India’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), demanded that SpiceJet identify the pilots in the photograph and take action against them.

The DGCA’s involvement resulted in both pilots being suspended from flying by the airline.

A spokesperson for SpiceJet was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Fortune.

However, a company representative confirmed in a statement to the Times of India that both pilots had been taken off the airline’s rosters while an inquiry was carried out.

“SpiceJet has a strict policy for consumption of food inside the cockpit which is adhered to by all flight crew,” the representative said. “Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken upon completion of the investigation.”

Past incidents

Having liquids so close to an aircraft’s control system can be a hazard, as any spills could damage electronic equipment or even result in engine failure.

Between 2019 and 2020, two Airbus jets suffered midair engine shutdowns and were forced to divert after drinks were spilled in the cockpit.

A separate case in 2019 saw a Condor flight from Germany to Mexico diverted to Ireland after a pilot spilled coffee on the plane’s controls.

In 2020, the EU’s aviation regulator banned A350 pilots from drinking coffee in the cockpit to reduce the risk of spilling liquid on electronic controls.

Aviation safety consultant Mohan Ranganathan, who shared a copy of the image on Twitter, said in a tweet that the pilots involved had breached safety protocol.

“Even the slightest turbulence and coffee spills on to the electronics, it will foul the systems,” he said.

The coffee break fiasco is the latest in a string of bad publicity for SpiceJet, with the airline facing multiple regulatory investigations over the past year.

In May, the DGCA launched a probe into a SpiceJet flight, after the plane’s autopilot feature stopped working for two minutes. The malfunction led to severe turbulence that resulted in 15 people being hospitalized with injuries.

The regulator ordered SpiceJet to halve its flights for eight weeks in July owing to an unusually high number of incidents.

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