State-run carrier Air India said yesterday it had suspended a pilot and two female flight attendants after a passenger jet's autopilot system was accidentally switched off "due to distraction".
The incident occurred on an Airbus flight carrying more than 160 passengers to New Delhi from Bangkok last month, and followed a series of other safety concerns involving the airline.
Air India denied media reports that the pilot and co-pilot had taken a 40-minute snooze in business-class seats and left two attendants to operate the plane in their absence. But it said the pilot and two air hostesses had been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation.
There was an "overstay of the cabin crew in the cockpit", the airline said, and "due to distraction the co-pilot had touched the autopilot disconnect button momentarily, but the same was connected back".
The airline did not reveal the nature of the distraction, but the Times of India quoted an unnamed Air India source as saying the crew members' actions had "made a mockery of air safety".
Indian media reports alleged that the pilots were giving the air hostesses flying lessons.
"At no point of time was the cockpit left unattended by the cockpit crew," the airline added.
This year, Air India suspended a senior pilot caught drunk just before he was to fly a passenger aircraft. Also in the past few years, Indian authorities have discovered at least half a dozen pilots flying aircraft using fake documents, including one who worked for Air India.
In March, the International Civil Aviation Organisation - the UN aviation watchdog - expressed grave concerns about India's air safety, placing it among the 13 worst-performing nations.
The investigation into the autopilot incident is being carried out by India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation.