Air India Criticized For Security Screening Of Human Remains

Filed Under: Air India

Air India is in the news over its security screening requirements for transporting human remains, and frankly I’m a bit surprised…

Air India’s “insensitive” screening of human remains

CNBC-TV18 reports the outrage among some people over how Air India screens human remains before transporting them on flights. This is something most people probably don’t think about when traveling, but in many cases human remains are transported by commercial aircraft in the cargo hold.

It’s being claimed that Air India is causing distress to grieving family members and being insensitive to religious and cultural beliefs with how it security screens human remains:

  • Air India requires human remains to be screened before being transported back to India
  • In many cases rings aren’t removed after death for religious and cultural reasons, and dhotis and sarees are also kept on
  • However, security officials insist that they be removed, because they otherwise set off the security screening for Air India flights
  • In these cases, remains have to be taken back to the funeral home so that these items can be removed, adding cost and also delaying transport

A letter has been addressed to India’s Civil Aviation Secretary, arguing that it is “nothing less than shocking that our own Air India does things that are religious and culturally insensitive.”

This is coming to light after an incident last week at Newark Airport, where remains were supposed to be transported back to India on an Air India flight. A registered funeral home that’s authorized by the DHS handled the shipment of human remains, and the body was embalmed and had required documents.

It’s suggested that the TSA then followed Air India’s procedure for scanning remains. This is when a hold was put on the transport, since some things were flagged during the security screening.

Other airlines don’t screen human remains?

Here’s the part of this story that surprises me:

  • A senior Indian government official claims that no other airlines scan human remains before loading them onto planes; it’s alleged that only Air India requires this
  • It’s also stated that the US Department of Homeland Security doesn’t mandate the Transportation Security Administration scan any human remains if death is due to natural causes, for any destination or airline

This is not something I’ve put much thought into in the past, but in a way it surprises me (and since OMAAT readers collectively know just about everything, I’m sure someone will have the answers):

  • I understand the complexity of screening human remains, but is it really true that this screening doesn’t happen on any other airlines?
  • If that’s the case, is this because the funeral home is somehow trusted and audited by the TSA/DHS (and similar organizations in other countries) to ensure the safety of transport, or how exactly does that work?
  • If all of the above is true and this policy is specific to Air India, is it a policy set by the airline or the government?

At least in part it sure seems to me like the problem comes down to communication. There will be differing opinions on the value of screening remains. However, it sure seems like this shouldn’t lead to an extra trip to the funeral home and a delay of transport.

Rather it seems these rules should clearly be communicated in advance, so that these items can be removed before transport on an Air India flight. If Air India has this policy and other airlines don’t, then sending remains away only to be returned doesn’t make sense, especially when there are other airline options.

Bottom line

Air India is being criticized for screening human remains before transporting them in cargo holds. It’s alleged that Air India is the only airline to have such a policy, which seems surprising to me.

I can appreciate what a sensitive situation shipping human remains is, but it seems like there should be a middle ground between respecting cultures and just not screening them at all.

What do you make of these Air India allegations? Anyone have more info about how this works at other airlines?

  1. TSA (and many others) insists on looking at images of my genitalia before I can board a flight (and God knows what sort of person is attracted to a job where looking at the genitalia of strangers is how they’ll spend much of their working life).

    Why should a corpse get more dignified treatment than a living human?

  2. Anything that gets placed into an aircraft should be screened especially with countries that have ongoing tensions within and outside their borders.

  3. I would suggest filming the process, however that is prohibited on Air India.

    Sorry, but if our shoes, belts, metal jewelry, etc. have to come off to clear security, then the corpse’s needs to as well.

  4. I would expect anything in the hold to be screened the same as my luggage in the hold. So if I have things like jewelry or other metal objects in my luggage, I would not expect them to need to be removed. And clothing that has metal on it, like a saree (or a leather jacket with gobs of zippers for that matter) I would not expect them to remove it.

    Screening shouldn’t mean that you have to remove all of the items you would before going through the human scanner. It just means that they put it through the same scanners as for luggage.

  5. I’m not sure if its the same for full body or how different is for other countries. But taking my father’s cremated remains from Brazil to Korea only required putting the container in the xray thing, security wise.

  6. Find out Kanishka tragedy you’ll get to know the reason. Moreover, if anything happens to lives onboard then you’ll change your sentiments to logic. And you’ll logically explain the faults of airline the way you are explaining it emotionally.

  7. LOL! They want to transport the human body with the newest technology available. And they don’t want the body to be checked from safety security features that come with that method of transportation. They surely can transport the body in a most spiritual way by foot, boats, horseses or whatever available when their specific dogma was established. Just my 2 cents!

  8. Well, at SAS we do such remains’ screening only on certain flights, namely from “not-so-safe” countries, i.e. outside of EU/US. Inside the “secure zone” no inspection is made, except for a very brief, visual scan from the outside. Regarding last part of your questions, the rules are set internally by each airline (however, it could vary from country to country – in Scandinavia it’s based on the “trust” element, whereas f.ex. India or Israel could be more strict)

  9. @B N
    Indians like to have gold jewelries. Their custom is buying gold jewelries when they have money and never sell them. They believe selling their gold is really really bad luck. And their gold jewelries are usually not very humble in sizes. That I think is why the human remain cannot pass security. Just my 2 cents!

  10. I have work in cargo security and I will say that regulatory agencies in each country determine appropriate measures for cargo screening based on the commodity, in this case HR (human remains). I have seen various methods in use around the world and in the interest of keeping these procedures secure, I would suggest you not write about a security-sensitive topic and stick to points and miles. There are guidelines in place to be followed by those who have a “need to know” which are put in place by authorities with a lot more knowledge, training, expertise and risk management than the folks you see at the airport checkpoints playing the role of Liquid Police. These regulations are not taken lightly and enforcement of them by agencies and inspectors is strict. Audits and inspections of such are a serious matter.

  11. @L T

    That’s the same point, although if I have a bunch of gold jewelry in my luggage it might be a bit more difficult for other reasons, but regardless of what I have in my luggage, it gets screened. Perfectly reasonable. Just does not require removal.

    Apparently you can even put unloaded guns in your luggage as long as it follows the requirements for whichever localle. Still screened. Not removed.

  12. The Sikh terrorist attack on the Emperor Kanishka is why Air India has these measures in place. Such a horrible tragedy!

  13. @Cargoguy: why the condescending tone? Lucky didn’t assert anything, just asking for information.

    A side note: informing the public about security requirement doesn’t impact the security of any procedure. You know that you can’t bring knives onboard. That doesn’t make it any easier to attack a flight crews. Why all the secrecy? What’s this? Flying nuclear materials?

  14. I shipped human remains for years. They’re all x-rayed in North America, with the exception of certain “registered / trusted” shippers. And even those could be x-rayed anytime.

    Nothing else can be shipped in a HUM shipment except the human remains and a set of clothing for them.

    All other personal effects must be shipped separately. Reason is people start throwing everything in the HUM crate without having a clue. Cameras / cell phones with batteries are dangerous goods. Perfumes are flammable (also dg) . Jewelry is a slippery slope too… It starts out as “one beloved family heirloom”… Then someone starts taking advantage and smuggling stolen Rolex’s. Or getting around duty / tax fees on gold.

    All those things need to be declared separately.
    Only human remains in HUM shipments.

    And yes, I’ve had all of the above reasons cause remains to be rejected and sent back to the funeral home to have them removed… It’s always made very clear in every county… Only human remains in human remains shipments.

  15. I don’t know if Human remains need to be screened before taking it on a flight in the UK.

    But what I do know is that the time that it needs to be in the airport before the flight is around 5 hours, what they do then I don’t know.

    The time of 5 hours I know from my father who works for the Jewish funeral service here and there are quite a few people who want their body should be buried in Israel.

  16. Human remains are screened before loading almost in all airlines. The airport handles it like any other cargo. A decade ago there was no screening, but seems gold smugglers started using the opportunity. Have heard rumours they even murder people and use the remains to smuggle gold those days.

  17. I think following screening rules and guidelines is reasonable. The case that Lucky pointed out where the family has to send the body back to funeral home to remove jewelries, etc, I will put the responsibility on to the funeral home. They are in the business of embalming bodies, knowing it will be transported by air to a different country, they should know the rules of the airlines and inform the family accordingly. Then it is up to the family to follow the rules or take another airline. It is somewhat annoying to find out these rules only before taking off. On the other hand, the family should be proactively checking out the rules of the airlines as well. This is after all not an usual cargo, this is a human remain. In short, all relevant parties should know better ahead of time.

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