Try to keep middle seats empty: DGCA to airlines

Updated on Jun 02, 2020 06:25 AM IST

Earlier this month, civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri earlier this month said keeping the middle seats vacant has not been an option for any airline in the world.

DGCA said the guidelines on air travel were tweaked based on the recommendations of an experts’ panel the civil aviation ministry constituted on May 26 to review and strengthen public health protocols.(PTI Photo)
DGCA said the guidelines on air travel were tweaked based on the recommendations of an experts’ panel the civil aviation ministry constituted on May 26 to review and strengthen public health protocols.(PTI Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByAnisha Dutta

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Monday told commercial airlines to ensure middle seats are kept vacant on flights if the passenger load permits, or provide flyers seated on these seats with additional protective equipment such as wraparound gowns.

DGCA said the guidelines on air travel were tweaked based on the recommendations of an experts’ panel the civil aviation ministry constituted on May 26 to review and strengthen public health protocols. “The airlines shall allot the seats in such a manner that the middle seat/seat between two passengers is kept vacant if the passenger load and seat capacity permits the same,” the civil aviation regulator said in its order.

It added that members of a family may be allowed to sit together.

“If the middle seat is occupied due to passenger load, then additional protective equipment like ‘wraparound gown’ (ministry of textiles approved standards) shall be provided to the individual occupying the intervening seat in addition to the three-layer face mask and face shield,” said the order.

The directive came a week after the Supreme Court allowed Air India to keep middle seats occupied till June 6 on its “Vande Bharat” flights for the repatriation of Indians stuck abroad because of the national lockdown, but said that the airline must follow an interim order passed by the Bombay high court in this matter.

To be sure, the matter in question was only related to international rescue flights, and the high court’s interim order (to be delivered on June 4, according to the top court), or the Supreme Court’s observations on May 25, were unlikely to have a bearing on domestic flights, which resumed after a two-month break starting on March 25.

While commenting on keeping middle seats occupied, the Supreme Court had observed: “How can you say it will not affect anyone? Outside [aircraft], there should be a social distancing of at least six feet. Will the virus know it is in the aircraft and is not supposed to infect?” The reference was to strict social distancing norms in terminals -- during check-in, security check, and boarding.

Earlier this month, civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri earlier this month said keeping the middle seats vacant has not been an option for any airline in the world. “Airlines already operate on very thin margins and if you keep one-third of aircraft empty, many of them will choose not to fly. This might be counterproductive. We would need to take other precautions,” he said.

Flyers have to be provided safety kits, including three-layered surgical masks, face shields and sanitizers as per the guidelines.

“The MHA [ministry of home affairs] guidelines for [Covid-19] lockdown 5.0 announced on May 30 will facilitate the gradual & calibrated reopening of aviation sector. As we move towards critical mass of 50-60 per cent operation of domestic flights, our ability to resume international operations will also improve,” Puri tweeted on Monday.

“We are reviewing the order and will incorporate amendments as necessary to our operations to comply with it. We continue to make every effort to ensure the health and safety of our customers and staff,” a spokesperson for Vistara said.

IndiGo said it will comply with the order. “We are complying with the DGCA order, by keeping the middle-seat free when load permits. We are also supplying appropriate Personal Protective Equipment to our passengers and crew, to ensure a safe flying experience,” Indigo said.

National carrier Air India said it will strictly adhere to all DGCA instructions and guidelines.

“Load factors will continue to be soft and hence airlines may on their own maintain flexibility in seat assignments like other airlines around the world are doing,” said Kapil Kaul, CEO, South Asia at aviation consultancy firm CAPA.

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