India continues to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, with restrictions and lockdown being reimposed in several parts of the country. Public transport services, however, have been resumed in a limited manner. Both trains and flights are operating in controlled numbers.
Member of Parliament from DMK Tiruchi Siva has written a letter to civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri, arguing that the government should have asked airlines to keep middle seats on flights vacant to avoid contact between passengers.
The letter from the Rajya Sabha member has been accessed by CNN-News18.
"It should be appreciated that all airports are maintaining and implementing with seriousness and sincerity all hygienic precautions like thermal scanning, sanitising and maintaining social distance of the passengers till boarding. But it is surprising to note that many flights are flying with full capacity leaving not enough required space between adjacent passengers," the letter reads.
Asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers may not be identified by digital thermometers at airports, Siva says. "So, all the efforts taken at the airport level and in other places become futile for there are ample chances for the spread of the virus easily and faster in this congested/closed air conditioned sitting space and travel," reads the letter.
Siva concludes by saying to Puri,"I thus request you to kindly instruct the airlines to leave the middle seat of every row in all flights vacant and the loss they may incur can be compensated in the fare of premium seating. Passengers also will consider their lives more precious than a few hundred rupees for a safer travel."
Sources in the civil aviation ministry, however, told CNN-News18 that it was not a feasible option. "We have capped the fares across sectors at this time. In case we keep the middle seat vacant, it clearly means that from the economic point of view it would result in other fares going up by at least 33 percent per ticket. That hefty price would have to be borne by the customers. Also the ministry has carefully planned the travel, and in many cases allowed flights to go over defence airspace on occasions to save passenger flying time. A lot of thought has gone into the reason why middle seats cannot be left vacant."
Vistara airlines that is flying to 25 destinations currently with an average of 40 flights a day told CNN-News18 that it was strictly adhering to the government's protocol. "If the people sitting together in one row are not of the same family, the person seated in the middle has to wear a protective gown along with the other PPEs including face mask and shield. These PPEs and gowns are provided by the airline."
National carrier Air India expressed a similar view. "This decision has been taken by the government. We are adhering to the safety and health guidelines to the best of our abilities. Maximum priority is being given to ensure the well-being of our travellers."
To ensure chances of infection on board are minimised, airlines are trying to maintain controlled air flow with temperature on flights, no food and beverage (no water even) so chances of passengers taking off masks is minimal, no interaction between crew and passengers as far as possible, number of magazines/paper on board has been drastically reduced, frequent cleaning of surfaces with prescribed disinfectants and deep cleaning of an aircraft every 24 hours.
The Supreme Court, too, had in the last week of June upheld the Bombay High Court order that airlines had deployed adequate safety measures for travellers in the wake of the pandemic. In what was a relief to the carriers, the apex court had settled the middle-seat row by saying that there was no need to keep it vacant.