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Worry about citizens, not airlines: SC pulls up govt on middle seat bookings

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New Delhi, May 25: The Supreme Court has pulled up DGCA India and Air India for allotting middle seats in international flights. The apex court, however, allowed the bookings till June 16 to exhaust.

Representational Image

The order has come on the day when domestic flight operations resumed in the country, after almost 2 months amid lockdown situation which was imposed in order to contain the spread of the virus.

"Air India shall be allowed to operate non-scheduled foreign flights with middle seats booking for next 10 days," Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad Arvind Bobde said.

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    "You should be worried about health of citizens more than health of airlines. It was "common sense" that social distancing is important as a precaution against coronavirus." the court observed.

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    'Outside, there should be a social distancing of at least six feet, what about inside aircrafts," Chief Justice S A Bobde told Air India, which has been operating the "Vande Bharat" flights to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to virus shutdowns.

    Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the decision not to have vacant middle seats was taken following a meeting held with experts.

    "How can you say it will not affect passengers? Will the virus know it's in the aircraft and it's not supposed to infect? The transmission will be there if you are sitting next to each other," the Chief Justice said.

    When told by the government that bookings were done till June 16, the court said: "For the next dates - exhaust all bookings and fly in centre seats. After that, don't fly anyone in centre seats."

    The pilot, Deven Kanani, in his plea claimed a circular issued by the Government of India on March 23, 2020, laid some conditions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while bringing back Indians stranded abroad due to the pandemic.

    However, the condition pertaining to keeping the middle seat between two passengers empty was not being followed by the Air India, he said in the plea.

    Kanani submitted photographs of an Air India flight operated between San Francisco and Mumbai where all seats were occupied.

    Air India counsel Abhinav Chandrachud opposed the plea and told the high court that the circular of March 23 has been now superseded with a new circular issued by the Government of India on May 22, 2020, while permitting domestic flights to operate from May 25. The new circular does not say the middle seat needs to be kept empty, Chandrachud told the court.

    The bench directed Air India and DGCA to file affidavits clarifying their stand, and posted the petition for further hearing on June 2.

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