The Supreme Court on Monday pulled up Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and Air India while hearing urgent petition filed by Centre and the national carrier against the Bombay High Court order to keep middle seats vacant in international flights carrying back stranded Indians.
“You should be worried about health of citizens more than health of airlines,” the court said and asked “Why social distancing norms wasn’t necessary in flights? Why centre seats should be booked for air travels?”
The Supreme Court has, however, allowed Air India to operate non-scheduled foreign flights with middle seats booking for the next 10 days after which those seats can’t be sold.
Chief Justice SA Bobde further said that DGCA and Air India are free to alter any norms it may consider appropriate during the pendency of the matter.
The apex court further told the Centre that no advance booking of centre seats should be done in international flights bringing back stranded Indians.
“We are concerned about the health of the citizens. The Bombay High Court will hear the matter on 2nd June,” Bobde said.
The court, in its hearing on the matter, commented that it was “common sense” that social distancing is important.
“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 aircraft,” the CJI rapped Air India, which has been operating special flights under the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to the Coronavirus lockdown.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the national carrier and the Centre, said that the “best practice is testing and quarantine and not seat difference”.
He further told the court that the decision not to have vacant middle seats was taken following a meeting held with experts.
CJI SA Bobde, however, quipped: “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,” he added.
The Centre had on May 4 announced plans to begin a phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad from May 7.
Under the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’, the Government is facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds in a phased manner.
Meanwhile, the court’s remarks have also raised questions on domestic flights which resumed operations today.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri last week, while announcing the recommencement of domestic flights, made it clear that it would not be possible to keep the middle seat vacant, one of the suggestions for ensuring physical distancing to avoid the Coronavirus infection.