Mumbai: Observing that the safety of passengers is paramount, the Bombay High Court has ordered Air India and the aviation authorities to ensure social distancing en route by keeping the middle seat on repatriation flights vacant. The HC said authorities cannot discriminate between international and domestic passengers, as the safety of all is paramount.
This comes after a bench of Justices Ramesh Dhanuka and Abhay Ahuja refused to accept the contention of the civil aviation ministry, which claimed that it could not keep one seat vacant between two passengers on international flights.
The bench was moved by Deven Kanani, a pilot with the Air India, who highlighted how social distancing went for a toss while stranded Indians were being brought back to India, under the recent Vande Bharat Mission.
Kanani, relied upon a March 23 circular issued by the Union government, which provided a series of conditions to be implemented to prevent spread of Covid-19 and outlined preventive measures. One such condition was to keep the seat between two passengers vacant.
Opposing the plea, Dr Abhinav Chandrachud, appearing for Air India, claimed the March 23 circular did not apply to international flights and was only applicable to domestic ones. He submitted that all precautions required to be taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 were being taken while airlifting Indian passengers from abroad.
During the course of the hearing, Chandrachud further pointed out another circular issued on May 22, which he claimed superseded the March 23 notification. He said that the new circular specifically states, the measure of 'keeping one seat vacant' applies only to domestic flights, not to international ones.
Having considered the submissions, the bench said, "Prima facie, we are unable to accept the submission of Dr Chandrachud that social distancing measures which are provided by the said circular so as to prevent spread of Covid-19 would apply only to domestic operation and not to international."
The bench said if the contentions of Air India were accepted then the whole purpose of preventing spread of Covid-19 by prescribed measures would be defeated.
"Prima facie, it appears that the object behind the March 23 circular issued by the Union government is for the safety of the passengers and for protection of their health in this emergency situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic. In these circumstances, the circular cannot be interpreted to apply differently to passengers from abroad and domestic passengers. Paramount consideration is the health and safety of these passengers and to achieve the object that they are not infected by coronavirus when they undertake any such travel," the bench ruled.
The bench said that the March 23 circular did not provide any differentiation of the category of passengers.
"This would be required to be recognised as legitimate expectation and concomitant to the right to life guaranteed to the citizens who are undertaking such travel. Prima facie, we are in agreement with the petitioner (Pilot) that those passengers who are being lifted mainly from U.S.A and U.K. may be Covid-19 infected passengers. In our prima facie view, Air India has violated the March 23 circular by not keeping one seat between two seats empty while allocating seats," the judges held.
As far as the new circular is concerned, the bench noted that a cursory glance indicated it applied only to domestic operations, and not to international operations.
"We have already indicated our prima facie observations about the applicability of March 23 circular. We therefore, make it clear that the our directions (to keep one seat vacant) would remain with a rider that the March 23 circular, shall be read with the new notification," the bench ruled.
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