Flights going from the three airports in Jammu and Kashmir — Jammu, Srinagar, and Leh — have been keeping their window shades down during take-off and landing.
This is being done to withdraw details of the deployment of assets such as fighters and surveillance platforms from leaking, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified. Officials in the civil aviation ministry said the airlines were advised to follow the practice soon after India’s air strike on a base of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror group inside Pakistan on February 26.
“The cabin crew were coming to every seat and checking if the window shades were down, just as they check for seat belts. Being a frequent flier, I kept it open knowing it has to be kept open during take-off and landing. I was surprised when the crew asked me to close it. I tried to ask them why, but they only said there was a directive,” said a passenger who recently traveled from Jammu.
The Indian Air Force did not offer a comment. Officials at major airlines confirmed that they were following the directive, but refused to come on record. Hindustan Times could not confirm whether all airlines were following this directive.
“Deployments of fighters and other assets are top secret, more so when there is an Op-Alert (Operational Alert). Indian forces were put on an alert and full “Air-Defence Alert” minutes after Indian fighters hit the JeM camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on 26 February,” a senior ministry of defense (MoD) official said on condition of anonymity.
The Leh airstrip is a critical airstrip for IAF. It is the northern-most airport where fighters can be deployed and have a critical role in protecting incoming threats. Jammu and Srinagar air bases have an operational role too and house fighters.
“Keeping deployment under wraps is a challenge with increased use of smartphones. Therefore flights carrying civilians are perhaps taking off and landing with the window shades pulled down,” the MoD official added. “This procedure is not limited to the Leh airport, but for all military airports that have an operational role and could be used for operations at short notice.”
For instance, some critical airstrips are allowing “minimum use of the Instrument Landing System for non-military flights.”
Aviation safety experts say the procedure compromises safety guidelines. “Window shades are kept open so that in case of rejected take off or crash landing, the crew knows which side of the plane the rescue teams are an evacuation is to be done to which side. Also, in case of fire, the rescue team positioned outside will know which side to break in from. It is a safety guideline and if airlines are not doing it then it is a violation,” said Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety expert.