The Supreme Court on Monday allowed national carrier Air India to operate the flights to bring back Indians stranded abroad without leaving the middle seat vacant for a period of 10 days till June 6, Live Law reported.
A bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde passed the order on a petition filed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India against a Bombay High Court order to keep middle seats on airplanes vacant to ensure physical distancing.
The petitioners argued that the middle seat rule applied to scheduled commercial flights and not to the special ones meant to bring back Indian citizens stranded abroad. The top court convened a special session to hear the Centre’s urgent petition despite the Eid holiday.
“We are of the considered view that Air India shall be allowed to operate non-scheduled flights with centre seat booking for 10 days,” the court said during the special sitting. “However after that, Air India will operate non-scheduled flights in accordance with the order of the Bombay High Court.
The bench said that it would normally not interfere with the orders of a High Court but had to pass the verdict considering the circumstances of stranded Indians. “We would normally not be inclined to interfere in an interim order passed by the High Court,” the bench said. “The solicitor general has pointed out the immense difficulties that have arisen as passengers stranded abroad were issued valid tickets.”
“Plans of families travelling together have been disrupted among other things,” the court added. “Those from family who had centre seats had to be offloaded and left behind.”
The top court’s order came on the same day as the resumption of domestic flights after two months amid the nationwide lockdown.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Home Affairs had released the standard operating protocol for the return of Indians stranded abroad due to the coronavirus lockdown. The Centre said that the cost of travel will be borne by the citizens themselves and priority would be given to emergency cases.
Last week, the government had had announced the extension of the Vande Bharat Mission to evacuate Indian citizens stranded abroad till June 13. The extended phase will cover 47 countries. The second phase of the evacuation mission was supposed to end on May 22.