The Bombay High Court on Friday ordered that Air India should comply with the directions in the circular issued by the Civil Aviation Ministry on March 23 to keep middle seats empty with respect to its international flights.
The Court however clarified that the direction was not applicable to domestic flights.
The direction was passed in a writ petition filed by a pilot from Air India who alleged that the national carrier violated guidelines issued by the Government of India in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically the condition which provides that seat allocation at the time of check-in is to be done in a manner to ensure that the seat between two passengers is kept empty.
A Division bench of Justices RD Dhanuka and Abhay Ahuja heard the petition filed by Commander Deven Y Kanani who relied upon circular issued by the Government of India dated March 23, 2020 and alleged that Air India violated the said circular by failing to follow the rule of keeping the middle seat empty during evacuation of stranded passengers from USA as part of the Vande Bharat Mission.
Appearing on behalf of Air India, Dr.Abhinav Chandrachud submitted that the circular dated March 23, 2020 issued by the Government of India does not apply to non-scheduled commercial flights but would only apply to scheduled domestic flights. He said that all precautions required to be taken so as to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are taken while lifting the passengers from abroad and to bring these stranded passengers in India.
Moreover, Chandrachud argued that even in the subsequent guidelines issued by the Government of India, there is no such condition prescribed for keeping one seat vacant between two passengers. He submits that even if one seat is kept vacant between two seats, even then criteria of social distancing prescribed by the Government of India would not be satisfied.
Petitioner's lawyer Abhilash Panickar submitted that if the argument of Air India Limited are accepted, there would be no preventive measures required to be taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Panickar submitted photographs of the passengers in Executive Class and Y class in one of the Air India flights operated between San Francisco, USA and Mumbai. The whole purpose of the circular dated March 23 which is issued by the Government of India to prevent spread of Covid-19 and take preventive measures is grossly violated, he argued.
Thus, Court noted that prima facie government's circular was violated by Air India-
"Prima facie it appears that the object behind the Circular dated 23rd March 2020 issued by the Government of India 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 can not be interpreted to apply differently to the passengers who are travelling from abroad and the domestic passengers. Paramount consideration is the health and safety of these passengers and to achieve the objective that they are not infected by Corona virus when they undertake any such travel.
Prima facie, we are in agreement with the submission made by the learned Counsel for the Petitioner 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 Circular dated 23rd March, 2020 by not keeping one seat between two seats empty while allocation of the seat at the time of check-in."
However, at 5:30 pm, Dr. Chandrachud informed the bench that a fresh circular has been issued by the DGCA dated May 22 which supersedes the previous circular dated March 23. The new circular is applicable only on domestic flights and not international flights.
Furthermore, Dr.Chandrachud told the Court that his clients have decided to re-commence the operation of domestic flights from May 25 and comprehensive guidelines have been issued by the Ministry of Civil Aviation via order dated May 21, 2020.
"In view of the above, we direct Respondent nos.2 and 3 to include this new Development in the affidavit directed to be filed. We further direct Respondent no.1 to file an affidavit, in reply before the next date."
Moreover, the bench granted liberty to the petitioner's advocate to amend the present writ petition and to impugn the new circular dated May 22 along with the guidelines referred to in the said circular.
Finally, the Court noted-
"We have already indicated our prima facie observations about the applicability of Circular dated 23.3.2020. It is not the case of Respondent nos.2 and 3 that the new Circular dated 22.5.2020 applies to international operations or to non-scheduled flights. We therefore, make it clear that the earlier directions issued by this Court in para 11, would remain with a rider that the Circular dated 23.3.2020, shall be read with Circular dated 22.5.2020 to the extent that the Circular dated 23.3.2020 stands superseded in so far as domestic flights are concerned."
This matter will now be heard on June 2.
Click here to download the HC Order
Click here to download DGCA Circular of May 22