The Delhi High Court has issued guidelines to all airlines and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to take action against passengers who do not wear masks properly on flights during the coronavirus crisis, Bar and Bench reported on Tuesday.

Justice C Hari Shankar saw fellow passengers on a Kolkata to New Delhi flight failing to follow the coronavirus guidelines and refusing to wear masks properly. He filed a suo motu writ petition and issued guidelines on Monday for immediate compliance.

“Constrained to pass the present order because of an alarming situation which was witnessed, by the court, during the Air India flight from Kolkata to New Delhi on March 5, 2021,” the order said.

The judge said:

“It was noticed that, though all the passengers had worn masks, many passengers had worn the masks below their chin and were exhibiting a stubborn reluctance to wear their masks properly. This behaviour was seen not only in the bus transporting the passengers from the airport to the flight but also within the flight itself. 

It was only on repeated entreaties made (by me) to the offending passengers that they condescended to wear their masks properly. On the cabin crew being questioned in this regard, they stated that they had directed all the passengers to wear masks, but were helpless in case they did not comply.”

— Justice C Hari Shankar, Bar and Bench

The judge said he had trouble finding the latest guidelines of the aviation regulator about the protocols to be followed by passengers undertaking domestic air travel. “Unfortunately, the website of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation does not contain the latest guidelines, issued with regard to in-flight protocol to be maintained by the passengers and the crew,” he added. “The guidelines available on the website of the DGCA, which too can be accessed only after an intrusive navigation through the site, are of 21st May, 2020.”

In its guidelines, the court directed DGCA to prominently display the instructions that are to be followed by passengers and in-flight crew in domestic flights. “This shall be reflected on the main website of the DGCA, without requiring the person accessing the site to navigate through various links to reach the instructions. The DGCA will ensure that prominence, to the instructions, or to the weblink through which they can, by a single click, be accessed, is accorded, by displaying them in a distinct and different font, blinking or otherwise, or by any other suitable means,” the order said.

It said in-flight crew should also conduct “periodical checks” to ensure passengers are following the rules. “It is made clear that masks should be worn as directed by governmental instructions, covering the nose and mouth, and not worn merely covering the mouth or below the chin,” the order added.

Justice Shankar said if any passenger is unwilling to follow this protocol prior to the flight taking off, he or she should be offloaded without delay. If, despite being reminded, they refuse to follow the protocol, action should be taken against the passenger in accordance with the guidelines issued by the DGCA or the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This includes placing passengers on a “no-fly” regimen, either permanently or for a stipulated, sufficiently long, period.

“It shall be the responsibility of the in-flight crew to ensure strict compliance, by the passengers, with the aforesaid protocol,” the judge said. “In order to ensure compliance, the DGCA may consider sending random observers on flights, without prior information, who would check to ensure that the Covid-19 protocols are followed in flight.”

The court said there should not be any relaxation in the rules. It said the DGCA guidelines permit relaxation from wearing masks in exceptional cases, but it should be allowed in “truly exceptional” circumstances after assessment.

If any airline repeatedly fails to ensure compliance with the issued guidelines, penal action is to be initiated against it, the judge said. “Each of us, as members of a conscious and conscientious citizenry, is required to be sensitive and sensitized in equal measure, and to strain every sinew to keep the pandemic at bay,” the order said. “If the citizenry becomes complacent, no government, howsoever activated and alive to the situation, can help.”

The matter will heard next on March 17.