The Bombay High Court on 5th June allowed the domestic airlines to fill up the middle seats. This is in compliance with the DGCA circular dated 31st May 2020.
Brief Facts of the Case
On March 23rd, the Govt. of India had instructed domestic airlines to keep the middle seats empty. Air India in an international flight did not follow the same. An Air India pilot had previously challenged this practice of the airline in the Bombay HC. Deven Kanani alleged that Air India flouted social distancing norms. The High Court has on 22nd May ordered all the airlines to keep the middle seat vacant.
The Apex Court was then moved by an aggrieved Air India. The Court asked the aviation regulator DGCA to frame rules for the matter. These should not only meet commercial goals but must also weigh the public interest. It permitted Air India and Air India Express to fill up middle seats till June 6. These airlines are evacuating Indians from different countries under the Vande Bharat Mission.
The Supreme Court had urged the Bombay High Court on 25th May to pass orders after hearing both sides. The petitioner had contended that COVID-19 transmits via touch. The middle seat passengers were hence susceptible to contracting the disease. The High Court had asked for clarification from an experts committee about the same.
Thereafter, the DGCA issued an order on 31st May 2020. It instructed domestic airlines to keep the middle seats vacant to the extent. Further, it had allowed filling up the middle seat in case of high loads. In such circumstances, the airline is to provide a gown to the middle seat passenger.
Contentions of the Respondent
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appeared for the DGCA. He submitted that the COVID-19 virus transmits via touch only under special circumstances. It is when a non-infected person touches an infected surface and then touches his nose or mouth. Ordinarily, after the recommended disinfection of hands, the virus does not transmit. He stated that the infection does not transmit by touch. There are droplets carrying the virus on the clothes of an infected person. Infection transmits if they reach the nose and mouth of a non-infected person.
The Court also inquired the airlines on Vande Bharat Mission. It sought figures of people who tested positive for the virus after taking the flight. Air India stated that among the 59,000 rescued, 248 passengers tested positive. Also, out of the 5,000 cabin crew, 21 tested positive. Besides, there was the death of an employee deployed at an office and not in flight. Adv. Janak Dwarkada appeared for Indigo. He submitted that the order threatened the airline’s right to carry business. Adv. Venkatesh Dhond appeared for Spice Jet while Adv. Darius Khambatta appeared for GoAir. Both supported the DGCA circular before the Court.
Report of the Expert Committee
The High Court had requested a report from an Experts Committee from its order dated June 4, 2020. It comprised of Dr Randep Guleria, Dr Balram Bhargava and Dr Naresh Trehan. Pradeep Singh Kharola, Secretary of Ministry of Civil Aviation, headed this committee. The Court asked them to clarify if the virus can be transmitted via a mere touch of an infected person.
The committee clarified that the virus is not transmitted if the infected person is wearing a protective gown. The gown insulates the infected person. The viruses on his clothes do not transmit to a non-infected person. The same holds true vice versa, i.e. when the non-infected person is wearing a gown and the infected person is not. Hence, a protective gown works as a shield against the transmission of COVID-19. However, it is still necessary to wear a mask and protective shield. The prescribed protocol of wearing the gown and removing it must be strictly adhered to.
The High Court reserved an order in the matter. In the meantime, it allowed the flight operators to fill the middle seat. This complies with the DGCA order dated 31st May 2020.
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