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Distancing defects stay on flights

Permission to sell middle seats has been allowed in non-scheduled commercial flights from abroad as well as in the domestic sector
“We are concerned about the health of the citizens. You should be worried about the health of the citizens, not about the health of commercial airlines,” Chief Justice S.A. Bobde told solicitor-general Tushar Mehta.

Our Legal Correspondent   |   New Delhi   |   Published 25.05.20, 11:39 PM

The Supreme Court on Monday criticised the Centre and Air India for permitting the occupation of middle seats in flights bringing Indians from abroad even as it allowed the practice at least till June 6. Permission to sell the middle seats has been allowed in these non-scheduled commercial flights from abroad as well as in the domestic sector, risking the spread of coronavirus as such an arrangement violates social distancing rules.

“We are concerned about the health of the citizens. You should be worried about the health of the citizens, not about the health of commercial airlines,” Chief Justice S.A. Bobde told solicitor-general Tushar Mehta.

Mehta was appearing for both the Centre and Air India, which had rushed to the apex court challenging a Bombay high court order of May 23, by which the court had directed the national carrier to keep the middle seats on its international flights vacant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The bench of Chief Justice Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopana and Hrishikesh Roy, which took up the appeals filed urgently through video conferencing despite the holiday for Eid, remanded the matter back to the high court with a request to pass an effective interim order after hearing all concerned on the date fixed by it, i.e. June 2, 2020, or soon thereafter.

The high court had sought a response from Air India and the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on a petition of an AI pilot, who had claimed that the airline was not following safety measures for Covid-19 while bringing back Indians stranded abroad.

The high court had directed Air India and the DGCA to file affidavits clarifying their stand and posted the petition for further hearing on June 2.

The pilot, Deven Kanani, in his plea claimed that a circular issued by the government on March 23, 2020 laid some conditions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while bringing back Indians stranded abroad.

However, the condition pertaining to keeping the middle seat between two passengers empty was not being followed by the Air India, he said in the plea.

Kanani had submitted photographs of an Air India flight operated between San Francisco and Mumbai where all seats were occupied.

Mehta argued that middle seats were allowed because stranded Indians were desperate to come back to the country amidst severe shortages of flights. Besides, the incoming passengers were subject to standard quarantine procedures.

He said the March 23 circular of the DGCA was superseded by another meeting held on May 4 of a DGCA expert body wherein it was decided that middle seats need not be kept vacant for non-scheduled international flights.

Mehta told the bench that till June 16 all the tickets for the non-scheduled flights have been booked, including the middle seats.

“We are of the considered view that the petitioner Air India should be allowed to operate the non-scheduled flights with the middle seats booking up to June 6, 2020. However, after that the Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay high court thereafter,” the Supreme Court said.

The Supreme Court bench observed that authorities must consider the importance of maintaining social distancing as shoulder to shoulder sitting is dangerous because of the contagious pandemic. The bench said normally it is not inclined to interfere with the interim orders made by the courts below.

“You are eliminating middle seat difference also? How, can you say it will not effect? Will the virus know that though it is in the aircraft it is not supposed to infect?” Justice Bobde asked Mehta.

Mehta said that due to the directions of the high court a lot of “anxiety and difficulties” have arisen among the passengers who are stranded on foreign soil after they were issued tickets for travel.

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