The Supreme Court on 25th May 2020, heavily reprimanded the Government for starting domestic flight operations and allowing ticket seat bookings on the middle seats of the airplane. It warned the Government that it should prioritize the health of the citizens over the health of its airlines.
The Apex Court was hearing a plea by Air India and Government that had challenged an order by Bombay High Court stating middle seats must be kept vacant for international non- operational flights to bring back stranded Indian Citizens.
Air India Pilot Deven Yogesh Kanani appealed to Bombay High Court stating safety reasons for non- scheduled international flights for bringing back stranded Indians stuck overseas. The Supreme Court widened the scope of the notification to all flights along with domestic and international flights. It also addressed to the Government that it was common sense to ensure social distancing.
It mentioned that sitting shoulder to shoulder in flights can be harmful. The Top Court, while widening the scope of the notification from beyond non- scheduled flights bringing back stranded Indians to also include domestic flights, stated that Directorate General of Civil Aviation is “free to alter any norms, during the pendency of the matter, in the interest of public health and safety of passengers, rather than commercial considerations.”
Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is a statutory body formed under Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020. The work of this directorate is to investigate aviation incidents and accidents. The headquarters of this directorate is along Shri Aurobindo Marg, opposite Safdarjung Airport in New Delhi. The central government is of the thought to replace the organization with a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which is modeled on the lines of the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Lok Sabha has recently passed the Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020 which seeks to amend the Aircraft Act, 1934 which regulates the manufacture, possession, use, operation, sale, import, and export of civil aircraft and licensing of aerodromes.
The said Bill provides statutory status to regulatory institutions such as the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), and the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau (AAIB). The bill also proposes to increase the amount of fine for violations of rules from Rs. 10 lakhs to Rs. 1 crore for aviation players. The Aircraft Act, 1934 exempted aircrafts belonging to the military, naval, or air forces of the Union. The Aircraft (Amendment) Bill, 2020 expands this exemption to include aircrafts belonging to any other armed forces other than the three mentioned.
The Supreme Court also sarcastically questioned the government, “Will the virus know it's on a plane and is not supposed to infect?” It, however, gave relaxation of 10 days till 6th June 2020, to allow seating in the middle row, given the emergency nature of “Vande- Bharat” non- scheduled flights to bring back stranded Indians.
The SC order reads, “Air India should be allowed to operate the non-scheduled flights with the middle seats booking up to 6th June 2020. However, after that, the Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the interim order to be passed by the Bombay High Court.”