The Supreme Court on today ordered Air India that they may operate non-scheduled relief and rescue flights on international routes with middle seat booking till June 6, partially modifying the Bombay high court order of May 22 which had mandated the national carrier to keep middle seats vacant while flying home Indians stranded abroad.
The bench was headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI), SA Bobde.
“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 upto June 6,” the top court said.
Air India and the central government had rushed to the apex court on Sunday seeking a stay on the Bombay high court order.
The top court sent the matter back to the Bombay high court to pass an appropriate interim order on June 2, which is the next date of hearing of the case in the high court. Air India will have to comply with the interim order of the Bombay high court while operating non-scheduled flights after June 6.
“However, after that (June 6) Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court”, the top court said.
“You should be worried about the health of citizens and not about the health of commercial airlines,” CJI Bobde told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who was appearing for Air India and the central government.
The court also ordered that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is free to alter any norms during the pendency of the matter in the interest of public health and safety of the passengers rather than commercial considerations.
The petitioner Deven Yogesh Kanani Air India pilot pointed out before the high court that operating flights without keeping middle seats vacant was in violation of the circular issued by the DGCA on March 23.
Air India informed that the circular is applicable only to scheduled domestic flights and not non-scheduled international flights. They further, argued that the March 23 circular has been superseded by a circular issued on May 22 as per which there is no express mandate to keep the middle seats vacant.
The central government also pointed out the difficulties in convincing airport authorities of foreign nations to offload passengers based on an order passed by a court in India. Besides, it was also submitted that keeping the middle seat unoccupied will not help much to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.
“How can you say it will not affect anyone? Outside (aircraft), there should be a social distancing of at least 6 feet. Will the Virus know it is in the aircraft and is not supposed to infect?,” the court questioned.
The bench, which also comprised justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, remarked that there should be no distinction between international and domestic flights when it comes to adherence to social distancing norms.
“There shouldn’t be a difference (between international and domestic flights). It is common sense that maintaining social distancing is important,” the court remarked.