In a relief to both domestic and international airlines, the Bombay High Court on Monday allowed them to fill up middle seats, in compliance with the May 31 circular issued by the Civil Aviation, on the condition that passengers wear ‘wrap around’ gowns and that standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) are followed.
A division bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and S P Tavade today passed the judgement, 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. The plea was submitted through advocate Abhilash Panickar.
On June 4, the bench had reserved the matter for final order. In its interim order, the court had directed all domestic and international airlines to comply with the DGCA rules till its final hearing.
In its 50-paged judgement today, 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.”
It added, “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.”
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 their flights through which they landed in India. Aviation authorities later moved the Supreme Court against the high court order.
Following a May 25 order by the apex court, the DGCA on May 31 had 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 virus.
The Centre also said that since these cases were revealed during the institutional quarantine period, there was no proof to corroborate whether they had contracted the infection on the flight.
After perusing the details given by the authorities, the high court had sought 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 a clarification note by the expert committee to the court which said that the transmission of Covid-19 through touch could happen only under certain circumstances if the protective gears are not worn and hands are not being disinfected.
“If an infected person merely touches a non-infected person, the virus will not be transmitted unless the transmission takes place through droplets carrying the virus sitting on clothes and ultimately these reaching the mouth, nose or eyes of the other person,” the expert panel had said.
It is necessary for both the infected and non-infected persons to wear a mask and protective face shield and put on a gown, the experts said.
Private carriers such as IndiGo, GoAir and SpiceJet had also filed intervention pleas in the case and supported the stand taken by Air India that the middle seats were being filled due to high demand by fliers and all precautionary measures laid down by the DGCA were being adhered to.
After hearing the submissions and perusing material on record, the court granted relief to the airlines, saying, “At this stage, we do not propose to pass any orders qua payment of costs. The costs shall be ordered at the hearing of the petition.”
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