‘Does virus know’: SC questions full capacity flights for stranded Indians

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde remarked that there should be no distinction between international and domestic flights when it comes to adherence to social distancing norms.
A special Air India flight carrying 132 passengers from the UK under Vande Bharat Mission arrives at Ahmedabad airport on Sunday.(ANI)
A special Air India flight carrying 132 passengers from the UK under Vande Bharat Mission arrives at Ahmedabad airport on Sunday.(ANI)
Updated on May 25, 2020 04:41 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByMurali Krishnan | Edited by Ashutosh Tripathi

Air India may operate non-scheduled relief and rescue flights on international routes with middle seat booking till June 6, the Supreme Court ordered on Monday, partially modifying the Bombay high court order of May 22 which had mandated the national carrier to keep middle seats vacant while flying home Indians stranded abroad.

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI), SA Bobde extended the liberty to Air India to fill up middle seats of the rescue flights after taking into account difficulties which passengers, including families, could face if the centre seat passengers are offloaded.

“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 upto June 6,” the top court said.

Air India and the central government had rushed to the apex court on Sunday seeking a stay on the Bombay high court order.

The top court sent the matter back to the Bombay high court to pass an appropriate interim order on June 2, which is the next date of hearing of the case in the high court. Air India will have to comply with the interim order of the Bombay high court while operating non-scheduled flights after June 6.

“However, after that (June 6) Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court”, the top court said.

During the hearing on Monday, the apex court was critical of Air India’s logic to operate international flights without keeping centre seats vacant.

“You should be worried about the health of citizens and not about the health of commercial airlines,” CJI Bobde told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who was appearing for Air India and the central government.

The court also ordered that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is free to alter any norms during the pendency of the matter in the interest of public health and safety of the passengers rather than commercial considerations.

The petitioner before the high court, Deven Yogesh Kanani, who is an Air India pilot himself, had pointed out that operating flights without keeping middle seats vacant was in violation of the circular issued by the DGCA on March 23.

Air India had contended that the circular of March 23 applies only to scheduled domestic flights and not non-scheduled international flights. Further, it was also argued by Air India that the March 23 circular has been superseded by a circular issued on May 22 as per which there is no express mandate to keep the middle seats vacant.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta impressed upon the Supreme Court the difficulties which passengers may face if the middle seat bookings are cancelled. He told the court that one-third of the passengers who are expected to be brought in by the non-scheduled flights would be left stranded in foreign airports if the high court order was not stayed.

“According to Mr Mehta, this (Bombay high court order) has resulted in a lot of anxiety and difficulties arising from want of proper shelter, money, etc, at the foreign airports. Moreover, in some cases, the travel plan of families who were travelling together has been disrupted because those in the families who had middle seats have to be offloaded,” the Supreme Court noted in its order.

The central government also pointed out the difficulties in convincing airport authorities of foreign nations to offload passengers based on an order passed by a court in India. Besides, it was also submitted that keeping the middle seat unoccupied will not help much to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.

“How can you say it will not affect anyone? Outside (aircraft), there should be a social distancing of at least 6 feet. Will the Virus know it is in the aircraft and is not supposed to infect?,” the court questioned.

The bench, which also comprised justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, remarked that there should be no distinction between international and domestic flights when it comes to adherence to social distancing norms.

“There shouldn’t be a difference (between international and domestic flights). It is common sense that maintaining social distancing is important,” the court remarked.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021