Why aviation regulator is not forcing airlines to keep middle seat empty

Topics DGCA | domestic flights | Lockdown

Civil Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri earlier had said that it was impossible to keep middle seat empty as that would lead to a drastic increase in ticket prices.
Indian civil aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Monday desisted from forcing airlines to keep middle seat empty. Instead, it left it to the airlines' prerogative to do so.

"Airlines to allot seats in flights in such a manner that middle seats between two passengers are kept vacant to the extent possible. If it can't due to high demand, then it must arrange for a gown for the passengers seating in middle seats," the aviation regulator said in a fresh directive.

DGCA was forced to relook at the middle seat policy after an Air India pilot had challenged the regulator's protocol, in Bombay high court, which allowed airlines to book all seats.

Civil Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri earlier had said that it was impossible to keep middle seat empty as that would lead to a drastic increase in ticket prices.

The case moved from Bombay High Court to Supreme Court, and on May 25, the apex court rapped the government for prioritising airlines' commercial interest over passengers safety.

The supreme court noted that not maintaining social distancing on flights could be dangerous and sarcastically commented, “Will the virus know it's on a plane and is not supposed to infect?”

Rattled by the direction from the top court, Ministry of Civil Aviation next day formed a committee to strengthen the protocols.

The committee headed by civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola consisted of the country’s top doctors- Randeep Guleria, Director of All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), Balram Bhargava, DG at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) & Naresh Trehan, CMD of hospital group Medanta Medicity.

Secretary Kharola also called airline bosses on 26 May to discuss possible solutions. All airlines citing global examples had said that it will be impossible to run business by keeping middle seat empty. “The secretary wanted to know since occupancy was below 60 percent, is there a possibility that the airlines can voluntarily keep the middle seat empty. This, will increase confidence among passengers, Kharola mentioned,” said an airline executive.
Airline executives attending the meeting said that if they are forced to keep the middle seat empty, ticket price will go up by almost 50 percent which will make air travel unaffordable for a large section of the society and force them to take other modes of transport which are less safe than air transport.  “Rahul Bhatia, promoter of IndiGo presented a few pictures of passengers travelling by road and rail to underline the superior safety aspect of air transport. Keeping the middle seat empty ( 30 percent seats vacant) will be against public interest,” Bhatia stated according to the minutes of that meeting.

Ajay Singh, promoter of SpiceJet mentioned that face covering is an effective way to prevent the spread as the disease spreads by droplets and nowhere in the world, regulators have made it mandatory to keep seats vacant for social distancing.

"We included top doctors of the country in the committee in order to give confidence to the public and court that all best possible measures have been taken to make air transport safe,” said a government official. 

Since the matter was sensitive and any incident that will occur in future can create a public furore, the Ministry of Civil Aviation also asked the health ministry to be a part of the decision making committee. Rajesh Bhusan, Officer on Special Duty at Ministry of Health also joined the committee.

“After the court’s hard stance, we wanted to be doubly sure that the protocols were full proof. If going ahead, there was a case signalling that the disease was spread while travelling by air, there could be an allegation that commercial matters of airlines were prioritised over passenger health,” the official said.

According to the minutes of the meeting reviewed by Business Standard all the three doctors opined that while maintaining social distancing was desirable but more crucial was to have face covered and surface cleaned. 

Along with that the air circulation inside an aircraft which is done by HEPA filters, the ventilation provides a total change of air almost 20-30 times per hour. An HEPA filter can capture over 99.97 percent of micron particles.

“Studies on spread of virus shows that if both persons are wearing two layers of protection- the mask and the shield, it brings down the chances of transmission through air significantly. Additionally, if surfaces are being cleaned regularly along with the air circulation system of an aircraft by HEPA filter will make the chances of transmission very low,” Dr Guleria of AIIMS told Business Standard.

Dr Trehan reiterated the idea saying that airlines should ensure that air inside the aircraft get replaced very frequently. “This may increase the cost for airlines but the air conditioning system should be set to ensure this,” Trehan said in the meeting.

The view of the country’s top doctors gave confidence to the government that it wouldn’t be in anybody’s interest to keep seat empty.

“However we wanted to increase public confidence and added the gown as one more safety layer. We told the airlines to keep adjacent possible as much as possible but if not then to add one more extra layer of protection as gown and that they should bear the cost of it. The airlines agreed happily,” the official said.


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