Special international flights to repatriate Indians must have middle seats vacant, the Supreme Court said today, commenting that it was "common sense" that social distancing is important as a precaution against coronavirus. Middle seat bookings on the Air India flights will be allowed only till June 6. The court also noted that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens rather than the health of commercial airlines.
The Supreme Court's remarks, though only on international flights, also raise questions about domestic operations that restarted today with all seats occupied.
"It is common sense that maintaining social distancing is important. Outside, there should be a social distancing of at least six feet, what about inside aircrafts," Chief Justice SA Bobde told Air India, which has been operating the "Vande Bharat" flights since May 7 to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to virus shutdowns.
An Air India pilot, Deven Yogesh Kanani, had approached the Bombay High Court saying a circular by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation on March 23 for keeping middle seats vacant was not being followed by Air India for its special flights. Air India had told the High Court that DGCA order had been superseded by the latest rules put out by the government. The High Court passed an interim order against selling middle seats on flights.
Air India and the government then requested an urgent sitting of the Supreme Court, which heard the case today, on Eid holiday.
Speaking on behalf of the national carrier and the government, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that the best practice is testing and quarantine, "not seat difference".
Mr Mehta said the decision not to have vacant middle seats was taken following a meeting held with experts. He also said the travel plan of families travelling together had been disrupted because those in the middle seats had to be off-loaded.
"How can you say it will not affect passengers? Will the virus know it's in the aircraft and it's not supposed to infect? The transmission will be there if you are sitting next to each other," the Chief Justice questioned.
When told by the government that bookings were done till June 6, the court said: "For the next dates - exhaust all bookings and fly in centre seats. After that, don't fly anyone in centre seats."
The Supreme Court also said the government could change its rules while the case was on, giving decision-makers a way of reworking their guidelines on flights. "We make it clear that the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is free to alter any norms he may consider necessary during the pendency of the matter in the interest of public health and safety of the passengers rather than of commercial considerations," said the court.
The court also urged the High Court to decide on the case on June 2 and include domestic flights in its hearing if it wanted.
Last week, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had ruled out keeping middle seats vacant for domestic flights that resumed today, pointing out that air fares would shoot up.