The Supreme Court on Monday allowed Air India to keep the middle seats occupied while operating its non-scheduled international flights to bring back Indians stranded abroad up to June 6. But after June 6, the airlines will operate its nonscheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court.
Significantly, the court observed that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens, rather than the health of commercial airlines.The Centre and Air India had moved the apex court challenging the interim order of the High Court by which it had asked the national carrier to operate its non-scheduled flights by keeping the middle seats vacant.
A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices A S Bopana and Hrishikesh Roy, which took up the appeals, remanded the matter back to the High Court with a request to pass an effective interim order after hearing all concerned on the date fixed by it, i.e. June 2, 2020, or soon thereafter. The bench also observed that authorities must consider the importance of maintaining social distancing, as shoulder to shoulder sitting is dangerous, due to the contagion.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Centre and Air India, said that due to the directions of the High Court a lot of "anxiety and difficulties" have arisen among the passengers who are stranded on foreign soil after they were issued tickets for travel Moreover, in some cases, the travel plans of families who were travelling together have been disrupted because those in the families who had middle seats have to be off loaded and remain behind," the bench said, while noting the submissions of Mehta. The bench said it is necessary for the High Court to arrive at a prima facie finding regarding the safety and health of the passengers, vis-a-vis the COVID-19 virus, whether the flight is a scheduled flight or a non-scheduled flight.
The bench further observed that there should not be any difference between international and domestic flights as far as social distancing is concerned. "Will the virus know it is in the aircraft and it is not supposed to infect," the bench observed, adding that there might be chances of transmission if people are sitting next to each other.