NEW DELHI: In a U-turn, the Bombay High Court on Friday allowed airlines to let passengers occupy the middle seats in flights.
The court’s ruling comes days after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on May 31 directed airlines to keep the middle seats empty to the maximum possible extent to maintain social distancing aboard.
“Flight operators shall allow passengers to occupy the middle seat strictly in compliance with the circular dated May 31, 2020 and all circulars and guidelines issued from time to time by the concerned authorities,” the court said.
The court was ruling on a plea filed by an Air India pilot Deven Kanani claiming that the airline was not following the safety precaution of keeping the middle seats vacant.
The court had earlier, in May, asked the airline to keep the middle seats vacant.
Friday’s order comes after the court took note of a report by an expert panel of the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
The committee, under the chairmanship of the civil aviation secretary, submitted a note to a division bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and S P Tavade hearing a petition filed by Air India pilot Deven Kanani, who claimed the airline was not keeping middle seats vacant in flights bringing back stranded persons to India.
The court had, on Thursday, asked the committee, set up to review public health care protocols for air travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, if coronavirus can be transmitted by mere touch of a person who is a carrier.
The committee, in its note submitted to the court on Friday, said novel coronavirus virus can be transmitted by touch only under certain circumstances like when an infected person's droplets from nose or mouth (coughing or sneezing) come in contact with a surface or clothes and another person comes in contact with the surface and then touches his or her nose, eyes or mouth.
"If an infected person merely touches a non-infected person the virus will not be transmitted. The transmission has to take place through droplets carrying the virus and ultimately the same reaching mouth, nose or eyes of the other person," the note said.
The committee also said if passengers wear protective gear, mask and face shield provided by airlines, then it would decrease the risk of spread of the coronavirus.
Kanani in his plea claimed Air India was violating the guidelines laid down in a March 23 circular issued by the Centre.
Air India had informed court last week that the March 23 circular was superseded with a new circular issued by the government on May 22.
As per the airline, the new circular does not say the middle seat needs to be kept empty.
The high court last week noted that a cursory glance at the May 22 circular showed it applied only to domestic flights and not 'Vande Bharat' international flights operated by Air India.
The court had then directed Air India and DGCA to clarify their stand.
Air India later approached the Supreme Court which, while allowing the national carrier to keep operating its scheduled flights with middle seats filled till June 5, observed that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens than the health of commercial airlines.
The high court on Friday extended the apex court relief to Air India to book middle seats for Vande Bharat flights till it passes its order in the petition.
(With PTI Inputs)