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Air India argued that the social distancing measure did not apply to non-scheduled, international flights to bring back Indians stranded abroad, and further that a May 22 circular has now superseded the March 23 circular
The Bombay High Court on Friday asked Air India to respond on a plea claiming that the airline violated DGCA guidelines requiring that a vacant flight seat should be maintained between two passengers, as a social distancing measure to guard against COVID-19. (Bombay High Court - flight social distancing)
The petitioner, a pilot working with Air India Limited pointed out that the same was in violation of a March 23 circular issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
Advocate Abhilash Panickar submitted for the petitioner that the whole purpose of the circular dated March 23 was to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This has been grossly violated by the Air India, he contended.
On the other hand, Advocate Abhinav Chandrachud countered for Air India that the March 23 Circular does not apply to non-scheduled, commercial, international flights but that it would only apply to scheduled, domestic flights.
After hearing rival submissions on the issue, however, Justices RD Dhanuka and Abhay Ahuja opined,
While dealing with the plea, the Court observed that the paramount consideration in issuing such guidelines was to ensure the safety of the passengers and to prevent a COVID-19 infection during travel.
As such, the Court stated that the March 23 circular "cannot be interpreted to apply differently to the passengers who are travelling from abroad and the domestic passengers."
The Court on Friday expressed its prima facie opinion that it was unconvinced of Air India's stance that the March 23 circular did not to International, unscheduled flights.
If these arguments are accepted, the whole purpose of issuing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would be defeated, the Court added.
However, later in the evening on Friday, Air India informed the Court that a new Central Government circular for flight travel was issued the same day i.e. on May 22. It was argued that this latest circular has superseded the March 23 circular.
It may be noted that while the May 22 circular contains general guidelines to maintain social distancing, there is no express provision for the middle seats of flights to be kept vacant.
The Court, in turn, observed that on a cursory glance the May 22 circular appeared to apply only for the purposes of domestic travel. The Court also recorded Air India's submission that it was scheduled to re-start domestic flight operations on Monday, May 25.
In view of these developments, the Court has directed Air India to ensure the compliance of of the safety measures issued, while reading both circulars together and factoring in the supercession of the March 23 circular by the May 22 circular in so far as domestic flights are concerned.
With regard to international flights, effectively, the Court has directed Air India to follow the policy of leaving the middle seat vacant, as directed in paragraph 11 of its initial interim order.
Para 11 of the interim order
Air India has been asked to incorporate the latest developments as well in a detailed affidavit to be filed before the next date of Court hearing. This affidavit is also to contain the names of passengers who were allotted middle seats and the list of flights through which they landed in India.
Further, the Bench has also granted liberty to the petitioner to amend his plea in order to challenge the new rules issued on May 22.
The matter has been posted to be taken up next on June 2.