SC raps Centre for filling up middle seats in flights

Coronavirus Lockdown: Supreme Court pulls up Centre for allowing Air India to fill up middle seats in flights 

Supreme Court of India. (Credit: PTI Photo)

The Supreme Court on Monday said that it found as "disturbing" the circular allowing Air India to fill up middle seats in flights being operated to bring back Indians stranded abroad, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

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"The Centre should seek to maintain social distancing. This shoulder to shoulder sitting is dangerous," it said.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde told the Centre and the Air India represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that they should be more worried about the health of the citizens rather than that of the Airline.

They challenged validity of the Bombay High Court's order of May 24 questioning them over not keeping the middle seat vacant in flights operated during Vande Bharat Mission.

Mehta said immense difficulty would be caused to passengers, who were stranded on foreign soil and were issued valid tickets. "A lot of anxiety would arise for them for want of proper shelter, money, etc. Moreover, in some cases, the travel plan of families would be disrupted because those allotted middle seats have to be offloaded," he said.

The court then allowed Air India to operate its non-scheduled flights with the middle seats booking up to June 6, 2020.

After conducting an emergency hearing through video conferencing on Eid holiday, the court said the Bombay High Court, which was already seized up with a plea, would decide about the danger of transmission of novel coronavirus if middle seats are also filled up.

"We would consider it necessary for the High Court to arrive at a prima facie finding regarding the safety and health of the passengers in the wake of the COVID-19 virus, whether the flight is scheduled flight or a non-scheduled flight," the bench said.

The court also said the Director General of Civil Aviation would be free to alter any norms, necessary during the pendency of the matter in the "interest of public health and safety of the passengers rather than of commercial considerations".

The court disposed of petitions filed by the Centre, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and Air India against the Bombay HC's order.

During the hearing, Mehta, for his part, maintained that everyone who came from abroad in the flights, with all three seats occupied, will be quarantined compulsorily.

The bench, however, said there should not be a difference between domestic and international flights. "It is common sense that maintaining social distancing is important," the bench said.

Mehta insisted that the best practice was testing and quarantine, not seat difference.

"How can you say it will not effect? Will the virus know it is in the aircraft and it is not supposed to infect?" the bench asked, adding the transmission will be there if you are sitting next to each other.

Background:

A pilot, Deven Yogesh Kanani and others have moved the High Court saying the circular issued on March 23 for keeping the middle seat vacant was not being adhered to by the Air India. The plea claimed the airline neglected the safety protocol.

Special flights were being operated since May 7 to evacuate Indians stuck abroad through Vande Bharat mission. Domestic flights have also resumed from Monday.

The Air India counsel had then claimed the previous circular has been superseded by another circular issued on May 22, allowing the use of middle seat while keeping precautions.

However, the high court felt the May 22 circular apparently applied to the domestic flights. It sought a response from both the Centre and Air India and kept the matter for consideration on June 2.

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