Big relief: Supreme Court allows airlines to fill middle seats

Since the airlines have been allowed to operate since May 25 at only a third of their capacity by the government and that too with fares capped, any move to not allow the middle seats to be sold would have hit the carriers adversely.

In a huge relief for the airlines, the Supreme Court on Friday upheld the Bombay High Court’s order that allowed the carriers to operate without leaving the middle seat vacant. Since the airlines have been allowed to operate since May 25 at only a third of their capacity by the government and that too with fares capped, any move to not allow the middle seats to be sold would have hit the carriers adversely.

While rejecting the appeal by Mumbai-based pilot Deven Kanani, a vacation Bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul upheld the HC order which had allowed the airline to book seats without keeping the middle seat vacant on account of passenger load and seat capacity. Asking the carriers to strictly comply with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection, the HC on June 15 had noted that adequate safety measures had been deployed for safety and health of passengers. The HC had taken note of the minutes of the meeting of the air transport facilitation committee and the high level committee of experts which had “considered and rejected the suggestion that seats must be kept vacant between passengers”.

The HC had said that it found “nothing in the minutes of air transport facilitation committee or in the minutes/recommendations of the expert committee, which can be termed as arbitrary, discriminatory, unreasonable or ultra vires”, as claimed by the pilot. Even All India Cabin Crew Association had supported the DGCA’s recommendations to fill the middle seat of the aircraft.

Kanani’s appeal against the HC order had stated that the guidelines on social distancing should be followed and middle seats in the aircraft should be kept vacant. He further alleged that the expert committee’s report was questionable and its recommendation was “suspect and perhaps compromised”.

While the DGCA’s March 23 circular had recommended keeping the middle seat vacant, the circular was superseded by a subsequent May 31 notification that permitted the airlines to sell tickets for all the seats without leaving middle seats vacant. The DGCA’s May circular stated that the passengers travelling in the middle seat would be provided with a wrap around gown in addition to the three-layered mask and face shield. Besides, the airlines were directed to allot seats to family members close to each other, according to the May circular. The expert committee consisted of officials and eminent doctors, including ministry of civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, AIIMS director Randeep Guleria and Medanta – Medicity CMD Naresh Trehan.

On May 25, the apex court had allowed Air India to keep the middle seats occupied while operating its non-scheduled flights to bring back Indians stranded abroad up to June 6 while observing that the government should be more worried about the health of citizens rather than the health of commercial airlines. It had said that after June 6, Air India will operate its non-scheduled flights in accordance with the orders passed by the High Court.

As is known, while allowing carriers to operate from May 25 at a third of their capacity, the government also brought in fare regulation for a period of three months – till August 24 – to ensure that passengers are not overcharged for flights.

As per the regulation, a Delhi-Mumbai flight will have a minimum price of a ticket at Rs 3,500 and the maximum can go up to Rs 10,000. According to the fare regulation guidelines, airlines need to sell 40% of their total seats for a fare which will be the median of the lowest and highest slabs, which in Delhi-Mumbai case is Rs 6,750. However, airlines are free to sell the remaining 60% at lower price if they want.

Basically, limits on air fares have been set in seven bands on the basis of duration of flights ranging from 40 minutes to 210 minutes. The first band, which has its specific lower and upper limits of air fare, consists of flights that are of less than 40 minutes duration. Second, third, fourth and fifth bands of upper limit are of flights with durations of 40-60 minutes, 60-90 minutes, 90-120 minutes and 120-150 minutes. The sixth and seventh bands consist of flights with durations between 150-180 minutes and 180-210 minutes.

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