The Supreme Court on Monday took a strong view of Air India operating non-scheduled relief and rescue flights on international routes without keeping the middle seats vacant.
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.
“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 apex court, however, allowed the national carrier to operate such flights intended to transport Indians stranded abroad with centre seat booking for 10 days, partially modifying the Bombay high court order of May 22.
The high court had ordered Air India to keep the middle seats vacant while bringing passengers from abroad in non-scheduled flights. 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 Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on March 23.
Air India had taken a stance 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 Further, it was also argued by Air India that the March 23 circular has been superseded by a circular issued on May 22 as per which there is no express mandate to keep centre seats vacant.
Air India and the central government had rushed to the Supreme Court on Sunday seeking a stay on the Bombay high court order.
The apex court modified the high court order after taking into account difficulties which passengers, including families, could face if the middle seat passengers are offloaded.
“The high court order has resulted in a lot of anxiety and difficulties. Plans of families travelling together have been disrupted since those who have centre seats will be left behind,” Tushar Mehta told the court.
The Supreme Court sent the matter back to the Bombay high court to pass an appropriate interim order on June 2.
Air India will have to comply with the interim order passed by the Bombay HC after 10 days.