IN A relief to both domestic and international airlines, the Bombay High Court on Monday allowed them to fill up middle seats, but sought strict compliance with the May 31 circular of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) requiring passengers to wear wrap-around gowns in addition to a face shield and a mask.
The Centre had all along been against keeping the middle seat vacant. Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had, in May, said airlines the world over had decided not to keep the middle seat empty, taking into account their commercial viability, and also cited experts’ opinion that even if it were to be left vacant, social distancing norms may not be followed.
While the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention had said sitting within six feet of each other for hours “may increase” the risk of exposure to coronavirus, it noted that “most viruses and other germs” did not spread easily on flights because of how air is circulated and filtered.
A division bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and S P Tavade Monday passed the judgment through video-conference on a plea filed by Air India pilot Deven Kanani, who alleged that national carrier Air India had violated social distancing norms while evacuating Indians stranded abroad on special flights.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Civil Aviation on Monday allowed doubling the number of flights at the Mumbai airport to 50 arrivals and 50 departures. “The move will also see an increase in the sectors that we are currently handling,” the Mumbai airport said in a statement. The civil aviation ministry also plans to increase the capacity on domestic routes gradually from 33 per cent now.
The division bench of the Bombay High Court had, on June 4, reserved its final order. In the interim order, it had, however, directed all domestic and international airlines to comply with the DGCA rules till its final hearing.
In its 50-paged judgement Monday, the court observed, “We are of the prima facie view that the safety and health of the passengers onboard the aircraft qua Covid-19 virus is adequately taken care of even if the middle seat of the aircraft is not kept vacant on account of passenger load and seat capacity.”
“However, the Respondent Air India and all other flight operators in the country shall during the air travel of passengers, strictly follow and implement the Order dated 31st May, 2020 as well as the applicable SOPs,” it said.
On May 22, the high court had ‘prima facie’ observed that Air India was in violation of the guidelines and had sought a detailed explanation with the names of passengers who were allotted vacant seats and a list of the flights they took. Aviation authorities later moved the Supreme Court against the high court order.
Following a May 25 order by the Supreme Court, the DGCA on May 31 asked carriers to try to keep the middle seats on flights vacant or provide “wrap-around gowns” to passengers who were allotted such seats.
On June 2, the high court had asked DGCA and Air India to provide data of Indians, who were not infected while they boarded special flights under the Vande Bharat Mission, but tested positive for Covid-19 after landing in India.
The Central government had submitted that at least 227 of the 58,867 Indians (0.38 per cent), who boarded special flights to return home, tested positive for the virus. It also said that since these cases were revealed during the institutional quarantine period, there was no proof to corroborate if they had contracted the infection on the flight.
After perusing the details given by the authorities, the high court had sought a clarification from an expert committee of the Civil Aviation Ministry to confirm whether the virus can be transmitted by touch.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted to the court a clarification note by the high-level expert committee, which rejected the petitioner’s claims. The note said that the transmission of Covid-19 through touch could happen only under certain circumstances when protective gears are not worn and hands are not being disinfected.
Justice Kathawalla said, “Upon disembarking, thermal screening of all passengers is again carried out and they are thereafter compulsorily placed under institutional quarantine for 7-14 days. It is not established till date that any passenger, who is tested positive, has been infected on board an aircraft.”
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