Crew-customs nexus exposes dark underbelly of aviation world

Prateek Goyal
Saturday, 3 March 2018

'Uncling' is an illegal industry of sorts run by crew in Indian aviation, which helps them earn over Rs 100 cr per year.

Pune: While English dictionary defines uncling as the act of loosening grip, urban dictionary defines the word as the art of staying an uncle instead of becoming a dad. But ask any airline crew what the word means to them and the immediate reply would be, 'smuggling'. Uncling or smuggling by airline crew tells the story of a murky nexus between airline crew, customs and a motley group of middlemen who sell the smuggled stuff in the market.

The arrest of Jet Airways hostess Devashi Kulshreshtha, accused of smuggling Rs 3.34 crore in US dollars, last month is just the tip of the iceberg of an illegal industry run by the crew in Indian aviation, which helps them earn over Rs 100 crore per year. 

Uncling starts with the crew bringing in small imported items, but get lured into the deadly trap of smuggling rackets, which many times lands them in jail. 

In the past, dozens of crew members including cockpit crew of Air India, Jet Airways, SpiceJet as well as staffers of Indigo have been arrested for smuggling contrabands, forex and gold. 

A senior crew member of Air India based in Mumbai, on condition of anonymity, said, “The trade of bringing imported products into India started in 1990 by the crew of national career Air India as it was the only international airline at that time in the country. The term 'uncling' has its origin in the practice of bringing imported products in large amounts by the crew, who used to tell their subordinates they were buying the products for their uncles. However, after the advent of new international airlines like Jet, Spice Jet and Indigo in Indian aviation, crew members of these airlines also got involved in the trade and made it an industry estimated at Rs 100 crore per year. 

Another version says 'uncling' is associated with the practice of the crew smuggling in products to an uncle based in Bandra in Mumbai. 

“Uncling has its roots in the greed for minor items such as chocolates, shampoos, perfumes, which are brought in bulk by the crew to earn extra bucks. They gradually 'upgrade' to foreign currency and gold. A crew member, who is arrested gets away by handing an envelope containing 200 dollars to customs officials. Many give the cash after withdrawing from ATMs at airports,” added the crew member. 

Another crew member from Air India, requesting anonymity, said, “The crew brings all types of products from GNC products, sex toys, deodorants, undergarments of Victoria Secret, iPhones, Plasma TVs, watches and beauty products in bulk. Crew members transport out products like cough syrups to America as it is banned there. In the past, two female crew members who were caught with suitcases full of cough syrups were sacked by the airline." 

“Uncling is not possible without the help of customs officers. The crew is provided with the customs duty roster through WhatsApp by customs officials themselves. Thus, the crew knows the duty schedule of the customs officers known to them and smuggle in products accordingly on the dates when they are at the airport,” added the Air India crew member. 

A cabin crew member of Jet Airways (requesting anonymity) said, “Over 70 per cent of crew members are involved in 'uncling'. Once they start bringing in and transporting out products without getting caught, they get more confident and start smuggling in forex and gold. There are forex centres at Vile Parle, Kalina, Andheri, which provide foreign currency to the crew to smuggle it out to other countries on a commission basis of 1 per cent. The foreign currency smuggled in and out of the country is collected by forex agents from the hotel room of the crew or at the marketplace.” 

According to sources in aviation, in Air India and Jet Airways, a cabin crew member involved in 'uncling' earns between Rs 10,000 and Rs 2.5 lakh per flight depending on the product. A crew member generally operates three flights a month and earns on average Rs 1 lakh per flight. Products such as watches, branded lingerie, sex toys and I-phones help them to make more profit. Big stores like Alfa in Mumbai are the biggest clients of cabin crew and deal with them through middlemen. Crew members are provided with a list of products by middlemen before they go on a flight and the crew members bring in products accordingly. Similarly, while smuggling out products, they are provided the list by middlemen or store owners in foreign countries. 

A source said, “Customs officials help them in smuggling activities. Initially, the crew used to give alcohol bottles from the aircraft to the customs officers as bribes to clear the luggage. Later, they started demanding alcohol from duty-free shops. Now, they are paid in cash. A customs officer is paid a minimum of Rs 10,000 for contraband per flight by a cabin crew or cockpit crew." 

An officer from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Mumbai, on condition of anonymity, said, “The crew involved in smuggling is known to each other across airlines. They have a wide network and keep meeting each other during parties. Not only cabin crew but also cockpit crew are involved in smuggling and have been arrested in the past." 

A senior customs officer said, “Not a single contraband product can be brought into India without the cooperation of customs officials. The crew, who brings in gold gives customs Rs 50,000 to 70,000 per kg for clearing the luggage. The customs officials get involved with the crew because the reward for the entire service for detection is just Rs 20 lakh, so once they catch hold goods worth Rs 20 lakh they know that they are not going to receive any more reward money for detection and get involved in helping crew to smuggle to make quick bucks.” 

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