New Delhi:

The Supreme Court on Monday rapped the Centre for allowing airlines to book middle seats on international flights and ordered that middle seats on flights must remain unoccupied after June 6. The Supreme Court said that there should not be a difference in social distancing norms for domestic and international flightsthe and the  government should be more concerned about the health of citizens rather than the health of airlines.


The apex court said today that the Special international flights to repatriate Indians must have middle seats vacant commenting that it was "common sense" that social distancing is important as a precaution against coronavirus. 


However,the Supreme Court on Monday granted national carrier Air India permission to operate non-scheduled international flights with middle seat occupied till June 6


“You should be worried about the health of citizens, not about the health of commercial airlines,” the bench, also comprising AS Bopanna and Hirshikesh Roy, told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who appeared for the Centre.

While holding an urgent hearing on Eid holiday through video conferencing, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde directed the Bombay High Court to decide the petition against DGCA circulars expeditiously and said airlines will have to follow the HC order with regard to safety measures, including maintaining of social distancing inside aircraft by keeping middle seats vacant between two passengers in a row.


An Air India pilot had challenged the latest circular issued by the DGCA, through which its March 23 order to maintain a vacant seat between two passengers in flights was withdrawn.


The pilot had also moved the Bombay High Court challenging the national airline’s initial decision not to keep a seat between two passengers vacant for emergency flights that were arranged to bring back stranded Indians from abroad through the Centre’s Vande Bharat Mission, and stated that it was in violation of the March 23 circular issued by the DGCA.


A division bench of Justices R D Dhanuka and Abhay Ahuja had held that Air India was in violation of the DGCA directive and had asked the airline to file a detailed response explaining its stand. However, when it was informed that the March 23 order of the DGCA had been withdrawn and a new circular issued, the court granted liberty to the pilot to amend his plea with challenge to the new circular.


Opposing the plea, advocates Abhinav Chandrachud, Arsh Misra and Kavita Anchan for Air India had submitted that DGCA norms were meant for scheduled flights and not for Vande Bharat flights, which were non-scheduled. Advocate Chandrachud said all passengers on Vande Bharat flights were provided with masks and precautionary measures were taken.


As the India resumes domestic flights amid 4th phase of nationwide lockdown all eyes now on the resumption of the International flights. Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri recently dropped the hint that the international flight operations may begun even before August. Puri had said last week that keeping middle seats vacant on domestic flights "is not viable" and social distancing norms will not be followed even if the seats remain empty.