The Bombay High Court on Thursday sought to know from an expert committee, set up by the Ministry of Civil Aviation to review public health care protocols for air travel, if coronavirus can be transmitted by mere touch of a person who is a carrier of the virus.
A division bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and S P Tavade was hearing a petition filed by Air India pilot Deven Kanani, who claimed the airline was not keeping the middle seats vacant in flights bringing back stranded people to India.
Counsels of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) pointed out to the court minutes of the meeting held on May 26, 2020 by the expert committee under the chairmanship of the civil aviation secretary, by which it reviewed and strengthened public health related protocols of air travel.
As per the minutes of the meeting, physical distance between two persons helps in minimising transmission through an inadvertent touch, and if persons sitting next to each other could be provided a protective suit which could help in preventing spread of virus either by droplets or by touch.
“We seek clarification from the expert committee as to whether by mere touch of a person carrying COVID-19 virus, it can be transmitted to the person so touched, the court asked and posted the matter for further hearing on Friday. On Thursday, other air carriers like Spicejet, GoAir and IndiGo also filed applications seeking to intervene in the matter, and sought the court to hear their contentions also. The court said it would hear all of them on Friday.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, appearing for the DGCA, on the last hearing on Tuesday told the court that DGCA issued a circular on May 31, asking air carriers to try to keep the middle seats on flights vacant and provide wraparound gowns to passengers who are allotted such seats. Kanani in his plea claimed the Air India was violating the guidelines laid down in a circular dated March 23 by the Centre, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during air travel.
The Air India, however, had opposed the plea, and informed the court last week that the March 23 circular was superseded with a new circular issued by the government on May 22, while permitting domestic flights to operate from May 25. As per the airline, the new circular does not say the middle seat needs to be kept empty.
The high court last week noted that a cursory glance at the May 22 circular showed it applied only to domestic flights and not the ‘Vande Bharat’ international flights operated by Air India. The court had then directed Air India and DGCA to clarify their stand. The Air India later approached the Supreme Court which, while allowing the national carrier to keep operating its scheduled flights with middle seats filled till June 5, observed that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens than the health of commercial airlines.