The Supreme Court on Monday granted national carrier Air India permission to operate non-scheduled international flights with middle seat occupied till June 6 but said that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens rather than the health of commercial airlines.
The top court was hearing pleas by the Centre and Air India against a Bombay High Court order pertaining to circulars on the middle seats in flights issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
While holding an urgent hearing on Eid holiday through video conferencing, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde directed the Bombay High Court to decide the petition against DGCA circulars expeditiously and said airlines will have to follow the HC order with regard to safety measures, including maintaining of social distancing inside aircraft by keeping middle seats vacant between two passengers in a row.
“You should be worried about the health of citizens, not about the health of commercial airlines,” the bench, also comprising AS Bopanna and Hirshikesh Roy, told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who appeared for the Centre.
An Air India pilot had challenged the latest circular issued by the DGCA, through which its March 23 order to maintain a vacant seat between two passengers in flights was withdrawn.
The pilot had also moved the Bombay High Court challenging the national airline’s initial decision not to keep a seat between two passengers vacant for emergency flights that were arranged to bring back stranded Indians from abroad through the Centre’s Vande Bharat Mission, and stated that it was in violation of the March 23 circular issued by the DGCA.
A division bench of Justices R D Dhanuka and Abhay Ahuja had held that Air India was in violation of the DGCA directive and had asked the airline to file a detailed response explaining its stand. However, when it was informed that the March 23 order of the DGCA had been withdrawn and a new circular issued, the court granted liberty to the pilot to amend his plea with challenge to the new circular.
Opposing the plea, advocates Abhinav Chandrachud, Arsh Misra and Kavita Anchan for Air India had submitted that DGCA norms were meant for scheduled flights and not for Vande Bharat flights, which were non-scheduled. Advocate Chandrachud said all passengers on Vande Bharat flights were provided with masks and precautionary measures were taken.
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