Air India has been at the forefront of the repatriation effort for Indian citizens stranded abroad, operating flights most of May 2020 to bring them back from nearby posts such as the Middle-East and faraway posts such as to the USA and even places like New Zealand. Air India has been operating their aircraft to full capacity, filling up every seat, including middle-seats to bring back passengers.
An Air India pilot, Commander Deven Kanani took the airline to the High Court of Mumbai to this effect, stating that on March 23, 2020, the DGCA had notified that passengers would be seated with one seat empty between them. The order was passed to Scheduled Domestic Airlines operating in India. However, he contended that Air India’s non-scheduled international repatriation flights should also be subject to the same rules. The High Court of Mumbai believed that Air India would have to operate with one vacant seat amongst passengers and asked Air India to comply with immediate effect, as passengers being brought back from the USA and UK may be exposed to the virus and may be transmitting the virus back home. The full order is here.
In an urgent hearing made today before the Supreme Court of India, the Supreme Court modified this order, only slightly.
The Supreme Court of India has granted Air India permission to operate non-scheduled international flights with the middle seat occupied only till June 6, 2020. After that, all the non-scheduled flights will also have to be operated with the middle-seat vacant.
The implication of this would be that many thousands of Indian citizens would be left behind abroad because only a limited number of planes and crew can be designated for these flights given domestic flights would also start operations from today.
However, the court has allowed the DGCA to revise norms in the meanwhile, which might be done to fix the situation. The order states,
We make it clear that the Director General of Civil Aviation is free to alter any norms he may consider necessary during the pendency of the matter in the interest of public health and safety of the passengers rather than of commercial considerations.
If Air India is unable to get an affirmative order for themselves to allow flights with middle seats open on June 2, 2020, this would almost surely mean the airline will need to start cancelling tickets on the repatriation flights and operate planes to lower capacity. Given the diplomatic effort involved in getting these flights up and running, this would be a disaster, apart from the fact that the pricing for these flights will also go up to match the reduced capacity.
What do you think is the right thing to do? Middle Seat empty on planes is just not practical. So what is?
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