Bombay HC allows airlines to fill middle seats after adhering to safety norms

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Mumbai: The Bombay high court (HC) on Monday allowed all airlines operating in the country to fill their middle seats on flights on condition that the guidelines issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on May 31 on the bid to rein in the spread of the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak and all other standard operating procedures (SOPs) announced by the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA) authorities are strictly adhered to.

The court passed its order on a writ petition filed by an Air India pilot, who had complained that the national carrier had risked the safety of passengers on Vande Bharat Mission – the biggest evacuation programme of stranded Indian nationals since the invasion of Kuwait by the then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in August 1990 – flights.

The pilot had alleged that the airline had not adhered to a March 23 circular of the DGCA, which stipulated that the middle seat should be kept vacant to maintain social distancing among passengers because of the pandemic.

However, the DGCA issued a fresh circular on May 31, which stated that the middle seat could be filled on condition passengers were provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) kit, including face masks, face shields, gloves, hand sanitisers, etc.

On Monday, a single-judge bench of Justice SJ Kathawalla while hearing the petition filed by the Air India pilot was informed by the DGCA and the MCA authorities that they had issued necessary instructions in the May 31 circular to safeguard both domestic and international passengers.

Air India, which was represented by solicitor-general Tushar Mehta and advocates Dr. Abhinav Chandrachud, Arsh Misra and Kavita Anchan, informed the court that they would ensure that the May 31 circular and the SOPs issued by various aviation authorities would be adhered to and prayed for the dismissal of the writ petition and the petitioner be asked to bear the cost for his wasteful exercise.

However, the court kept the petition pending, as it is yet to decide whether to financially penalise the petitioner.

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