(Eds: Adds court's observations) Mumbai, Jun 5 (PTI) The Bombay High Court on Friday in an interim order permitted airlines to allow passengers to occupy the middle seat in flights amid the COVID-19 pandemic but said it should strictly comply with guidelines issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to prevent spread of novel coronavirus.
A division bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and S P Tavade, while reserving its order on a plea filed by Air India pilot claiming the airlines was not following the safety condition of keeping the middle seat vacant, said the May 31 circular issued by the DGCA shall be adhered to until then.
The DGCA, in its May 31 circular, had said flight operations should try to keep the middle seat vacant, but if it has been booked, then the passenger shall be provided with a wraparound gown in addition to the mask and face shield.
'Flight operators shall allow passengers to occupy the middle seat strictly in compliance with the circular dated May 31, 2020 and all circulars and guidelines issued from time to time by the concerned authorities,' the court said.
An expert panel of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, under the chairmanship of the civil aviation secretary, on Friday responded to a query posed by the court earlier and said COVID-19 does not spread by mere touch of a person who is a carrier of the virus.
The court had, on Thursday, asked the committee, set up to review public health care protocols for air travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, if coronavirus can be transmitted by mere touch of a person who is a carrier.
The committee, in its note submitted to the court on Friday, said COVID-19 virus can be transmitted by touch only under certain circumstances like when an infected person's droplets from nose or mouth (coughing or sneezing) come in contact with a surface or clothes and another person comes in contact with the surface and then touches his or her nose, eyes or mouth.
'If an infected person merely touches a non-infected person the virus will not be transmitted. Transmission has to take place through droplets carrying the virus and ultimately the same reaching the mouth, nose or eyes of the other person,' the note said.
The committee said if passengers wear protective gear, mask and face shield provided by airlines, then it would decrease the risk of spread of the coronavirus.
The petition, filed by Deven Kanani, claimed Air India was violating guidelines laid down by the Centre in a circular dated March 23 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during air travel.
Air India, however, opposed the plea, and informed the court last week that the March 23 circular was superseded with a new circular issued by the government on May 22, while permitting domestic flights to operate from May 25.
As per the airline, the new circular does not say the middle seat needs to be kept empty.
The high court last week noted that a cursory glance at the May 22 circular showed it applied only to domestic flights and not the 'Vande Bharat' international flights operated by Air India.
The court had then directed Air India and DGCA to clarify their stand.
The Air India later approached the Supreme Court which, while allowing the national carrier to keep operating its scheduled flights with middle seats filled till June 5, observed that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens than the health of commercial airlines.
The high court on Friday also extended the Supreme Court relief to Air India to book middle seats for the Vande Bharat flights till it passes its order in the petition. PTI SP BNM BNM