MUMBAI: In its final order permitting middle-seats to be occupied on board Air India and all domestic airlines, if needed, Bombay high court disagreed with an Air India pilot that recommendations of an expert committee “suspect and perhaps compromised’’. The HC while disposing the pilot’s interim application considered the panel’s views and clarifications and views of the Air Transport Facilitation committee to hold that it was prima facie satisfied that “safety and health of passengers on board qua Covid-19 is adequately taken care of even if the middle seat of the aircraft is not kept vacant due to passenger load and seat capacity.’’
“ We cannot allow an individual to instill such fear in the minds of the members of the public, without any scientifc basis. We would rather follow the advise of experts, if their opinion is found to be fair and reasonable and not tainted with any arbitrariness or ulterior motive,’’ said the HC bench of Justices S J Kathawalla and SP Tavade, in a reasoned 50-page judgment pronounced on Monday.
The Pilot, Deven Kanani, had said middle seat ought to be kept vacant on all flights as part of social distancing to ensure passenger safety. He was initially seeking enforcement of a March 23 DGCA circular on all vande Bharat Mission flights bringing back stranded Indians from abroad.
The HC said since Kanani had “built his case on the existence of the DGCA
Circular dated 23rd March, 2020, which is not based on any scientific material, the
only credible material…are the Minutes of the Air Transport Facilitation Committee and the report of the High Level Committee of the experts.’’
The HC said Kanani had “failed to appreciate that even if the middle seat is kept vacant, the person/s at the window seat whilst getting out for going to the lavatory and thereafter returning back to his seat, is likely to touch (through his clothes) the persons/s sitting on the aisle seat/s. Therefore, if his argument is to be accepted, in every row of the aircraft only one passenger should be accommodated.’’
The HC directed that Air India, Air India Express and all domestic airlines have to strictly abide by the May 31 circular of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and other applicable Standard Operating procedures in place.
The HC said while it didn’t propose impose any costs on the pilot at this stage, costs shall be ordered at the hearing of the petition.
The expert committee which comprised three senior doctors is what the HC relied on to a large extent and it cited Supreme Court judgments which permitted such reliance and in fact directed that recommendations of an expert panel can “only be set aside if shown to be arbitrary, discriminatory, unreasonable or ultra vires’’. The DGCA on May 31 had relied on the expert advice to allow middle seat occupancy with added safety gear.
“In the instant case, the Air Transport Facilitation Committee as well as the High Level Elpert Committee have specifcally considered and rejected the suggestion that seats must be kept vacant between passengers. We find nothing in the Minutes of Air Transport Facilitation Committee or in the Recommendations of the Expert Committee, which can be termed as arbitrary, discriminatory, unreasonable or ultra vires,’’ said the bench.