The Supreme Court on Monday came down heavily on the Centre for illogical norms with regards to flight operations. The court said there cannot be two sets of norms — six feet social distance outside and shoulder to shoulder travel on flights. “The government should worry about the health of citizens than the health of commercial airlines,” the court observed. The Bench comprising Chief Justice SA Bobde Justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy heard the case.
However, the bench allowed the Centre and national carrier Air India to bring back Indians stranded abroad, by utilizing middle seats in each row till June 6. “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 up to June 6, 2020.”
However, the top court said after this Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court. The bench conducted an urgent hearing on Eid holiday, through video conferencing, to hear the appeals of Centre and Air India against the Bombay High Court order.
The Bombay High Court had barred the middle seat occupancy in on-scheduled international flights on Air India’s pilot, Deven Kanani’s petition alleging violation of social distancing guidelines.
The apex court asked the Bombay High Court to decide on the matter against Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) circulars expeditiously, and insisted airlines should follow the High Court order in connection with safety measures. “We make it clear that the DGCA is free to alter any norms he may consider necessary during the pendency of the matter in the interest of public health and safety of the passengers rather than of commercial considerations,” added the bench.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta contended before the court that immense difficulty has arisen because of the passengers who are stranded on foreign soil at the airports after they were issued valid tickets for travel. And, this has resulted in a lot of anxiety and difficulties arising from want of proper shelter, money, etc., at the foreign airports, he added. “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 and remain behind,” said Mehta.
The top court said “at this juncture, we would consider it necessary for the High Court to arrive at a prima facie finding regarding the safety and health of the passengers qua the COVID-19 virus, whether the flight is scheduled flight or a non-scheduled flight.”
The top court asked the Bombay High Court to pass an effective interim order after hearing all concerned, in the backdrop of health risk posed by Covid-19 pandemic, on the next date of hearing June 2.