Air India can operate flights with full strength, for now
On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed national carrier Air India to operate special international flights with occupied middle seats for ten days, till June 6. After the said date, the non-scheduled flights will have to keep the middle seat vacant to promote social distancing. Air India is currently involved in the Vande Bharat Mission, an elaborate exercise launched to repatriate Indians stuck abroad.
A bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde, and also including AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, conducted an urgent hearing on Eid, through video-conferencing. A case was filed in connection to the Bombay High Court's May 22 order. HC wondered why Air India wasn't keeping middle seats vacant in non-scheduled flights. Civil Aviation Ministry and Air India flagged their concerns in SC.
In its May 22 order, the Bombay HC sought a response from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and Air India, on a plea filed by pilot Deven Kanani. Kanani claimed GoI came up with the guidelines on March 23, related to air travel but the rules weren't being followed. Pictures of flights being operated between San Francisco and Mumbai were showed too.
In response, Air India counsel Abhinav Chandrachud said the March order was overrun by the May 25 circular, where GoI allowed domestic flights to operate without middle seats vacant. Justices RD Dhanuka and Abhay Ahuja said the order was for domestic, and not international, operations. Bombay HC asked DGCA and Air India to submit affidavits and posted the matter for June 2.
Wading into the matter, SC said it was "common sense" to follow social distancing in flights, in the wake of the pandemic. "Outside, there should be a social distancing of at least six feet, what about inside aircraft," asked CJI Bobde. "You should be worried about the health of citizens, not about the health of commercial airlines," the bench commented.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the best tool against coronavirus is testing and quarantine, not seat difference. He argued families' plans could get disrupted. "How can you say it will not affect passengers? Will the virus know it's in the aircraft and it's not supposed to infect? The transmission will be there if you are sitting next to each other," CJI Bobde fumed.
Upon being informed that bookings have happened, the top court noted, "Air India should be allowed to operate non-scheduled flights with the middle seats booking up to June 5. However, after that Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order passed by Bombay HC." HC was asked to hear the plea against DGCA circulars expeditiously.