NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday reluctantly permitted Air India to fill middle seats till June 6 in its non-scheduled international flights engaged to fly out stranded foreigners to their countries and bring back Indians stuck abroad.
This order came from a bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy on urgent petitions filed by the Union government and Air India challenging a May 22 interim order of the Bombay High Court, which had barred Air India from utilising middle seats in its non-scheduled international rescue flights, saying it was not in sync with social distancing norms enforced by the government during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Seeking permission for AI to utilise middle seats, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, “Thousands of stranded Indians are waiting to be rescued from foreign countries. Sudden cancellation of middle seat tickets would lead to chaos, as many members of a single family would have to be left behind,” he said, adding there was a standard operating procedure for mandatory quarantine for 14 days for those arriving from abroad.
But the CJI-led bench said, “The possibility of virus transmission would be more if passengers sit shoulder to shoulder. It is common sense that maintaining social distance is important. The government says maintain six feet social distance outside. But you want to do away with even the small distance that a vacant middle seat offers. You must be concerned about the health of citizens and not about the health of commercial airlines.” Mehta said the HC order preventing occupation of middle seats in non-scheduled flights, which started on May 7, led to cancellation of tickets of one-third of passengers who had come from various parts of the country to New Delhi to board flights to their countries on May 24, leading to chaos and disturbance at the airport.
Citing grave operational and diplomatic difficulties, Mehta said all seats in non-scheduled rescue international flights were booked till June 14 and it would be difficult to convince airport authorities in foreign destinations about the sudden cancellation of middle seat tickets. Moreover, it would upset travel plans of stranded families who have booked tickets together to come back to India. “What about their stay in the foreign country, their visa extension and food?” he asked.
The last argument appeared to have clinched the issue as the bench reluctantly agreed to relax the Bombay HC’s restriction on using middle seats. The SC said in its order, “We are of the considered view that Air India should be allowed to operate non-scheduled flights with middle seats booking up to June 6, 2020. However, after that, Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court.”
Remanding the matter back to the HC, which is scheduled to hear a PIL by Deven Yogesh Kanani who had accused AI of violating social distancing norms in its non-scheduled rescue flights, the SC requested the HC “to pass an effective interim order after hearing all concerned on the date fixed, June 2, or soon thereafter. At this juncture, we would consider it necessary for the HC to arrive at a prima facie finding regarding safety and health of passengers qua the Covid-19 virus, whether the flight is scheduled flight or a non-scheduled flight.”
Source : TOI