Middle seats on planes can be occupied by passengers for the time being, as the Bombay High Court is likely to pronounce a judgment on the issue, soon. The HC, while allowing airlines to let the middle seat between two passengers be occupied, said that the authorities would have to strictly comply with the May 31 circular by the DGCA, which made providing protective gowns for middle passengers mandatory.
A bench of Justices Shahrukh Kathawalla and Justice Surendra Tavade, in their interim orders, said, "The petition is closed for orders. However, in the meantime, the flight operators shall allow the passengers to occupy the middle seat strictly in compliance with the circular dated May 31 and the applicable guidelines issued from time to time by the concerned authorities."
Notably, the circular, among other things, allowed providing protective gowns to passengers so as to avoid any transmission of the deadly coronavirus. It was issued by the DGCA after a meeting with experts.
The expert panel had said in its report, "The physical distance between two persons helps in minimising the transmission through inadvertent touch. It was also suggested that if a person sitting adjacent to another is provided with a protective suit (like a gown covering the upper part of the body and gloves), this can also be very good means of preventing the spread of virus either by droplets or by touch," the report stated.
"The committee felt that providing protective gowns to intervening passengers, who are seated between two persons, would also minimise the risk of transmission through inadvertent touch while in the aircraft or while boarding or alighting," it added.
However, the bench had sought a clarification on whether mere touch would transmit the virus.
Issuing a clarification, the panel on Friday told the bench that mere touch is not enough. "Unless the infected droplets on clothes reaches the mouth, nose and/or eyes of the other non-infected person, the virus does not spread. Protective gown for middle-seat occupant, insulates and acts as necessary shield, to both, infected or non-infected passengers on the flight," the panel stated.
Meanwhile, Air India relied upon another expert committee, stating that it would be "impossible to achieve physical distancing on flights despite keeping seats between passengers vacant, because passengers move during the flight (e.g. to go to the lavatory)," it said in the written submissions, filed through advocate Kavita Anchan.
"We can keep the middle seat vacant but the same could be occupied only when the three passengers (sitting in one line) are from the same family or are related to each other," Anchan argued.
The bench, having heard all the contentions, has reserved its orders in the petition filed by Deven Kanani, a pilot with Air India, with directives to the government and other aviation authorities to leave a seat vacant between two passengers.