THE SUPREME Court Monday allowed Air India to fly non-scheduled international flights without having to keep a seat empty between two passengers till June 6. The Centre and the national carrier had argued that flights were already booked and discontinuing the middle seat suddenly would lead to a logistical nightmare as one-third of bookings would have to be cancelled compounding problems for stranded passengers.
The bench was hearing an appeal by the Centre and AI challenging the May 22 interim order of the Bombay High Court which had asked Air India to adhere to the Centre’s March 23 circular. The circular had said that allocation of seats be such that a seat is kept empty between two passengers.
“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 up to 6th June, 2020. However, after that the Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court thereafter,” a bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy ordered.
The court did not appear enthused about Air India’s decision not to leave seats empty between passengers given the Covid-19 situation. At one point, it told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, “You should be worried about the health of citizens, not the health of commercial airlines…” Appearing for the petitioners, Mehta pointed to the difficulties in implementing the Bombay HC direction. “There was a flight from here to US, people came because they had pre-bookings. Keeping vacant seats comes with procedural issues… family sits together… airports are different,” the SG said.
“There are numerous flights everyday carrying thousands of passengers and dropping of such passengers would create massive logistical, international and visa-related issues,” he said pointing out the Bombay HC order would require AI to cancel one-third of the bookings. The HC order “ignores the gradual strategy of the Executive in dealing with the issue at hand”, he said.
While Mehta submitted that the March 23 circular was only for domestic flights, the Bench did not seem to agree with him. “What are you saying? Have you read it or not? As your circular says, it said, it is for both domestic and international,” it said.
The SG said before March 23, India had stopped all international operations and that the March 23 circular has now been superseded. “We are not doubting your circular,” said the CJI. Mehta said there was a meeting of medical and aviation experts on May 4 following which an SOP was issued on May 5. Keeping the middle second seat vacant would serve no purpose while air circulation is already there inside the aircraft, the SG said quoting the experts.
The Bombay HC order came following a plea by an AI Pilot Decan Kanani who urged the court to direct the airline to ensure compliance of the March 23 circular in the interest of public health and safety.
On Monday, the SC remanded the matter to the Bombay High Court and asked it “to pass an effective interim order after hearing all concerned on the date fixed i.e. 2nd June, 2020…or soon thereafter”.
“At this juncture, we would consider it necessary for the High Court to arrive at a prima facie finding regarding the safety and health of the passengers qua the Covid-19 virus, whether the flight is scheduled flight or a non-scheduled flight,” the Supreme Court said.
It said “the Director General of Civil Aviation 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”.
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