Flyers refusing to obey Covid norms set to face police action

During surveillance at some of the airports, DGCA found that compliance with Covid-19 protocols was not satisfactory

Flyers refusing to obey Covid norms set to face police action
Passengers crammed together in a queue at the Delhi Airport. Image courtesy: Twitter/@ashishguptait

The Indian aviation authorities have decided to really crack the whip on passengers not maintaining social distance or wearing their masks properly with Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri indicating that those not following the rules would face punitive action by the police.  

"Our fight against Covid continues. Advisory issued to all airports to ensure compliance with Covid-19 protocol. People must wear face masks (covering nose and mouth) and maintain social distance. We are moving in direction of punitive action by police against passengers who don't comply," Puri said on March 30, 2021. 

This strictness has become necessary as the country stares at a second Covid wave, which threatens to wipe out the gains made over the past year especially with the introduction of Covid vaccines and an aggressive inoculation drive by the government. 

However, gross laxity on the part of a section of the public threatens to derail the efforts made by the government. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) stated on March 30 that during surveillance at some of the airports, it was noticed that the compliance with Covid-19 protocols was not satisfactory. 

The aviation regulator, therefore, asked all airport operators to ensure that the Covid protocols in terms of proper wearing of face masks, covering both the nose and mouth, as well as maintaining social distance in the airport premises are followed scrupulously. It suggested that the airport operators enhance surveillance in this regard. It also proposed spot fines, with the help of the local police, to act as a deterrent for flouting Covid safety norms.

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Earlier, on March 13, the DGCA issued a circular stating that the airport director or terminal manager must make sure that all passengers are wearing their masks properly and maintaining social distance within the airport premises. According to the regulator, passengers not following Covid safety rules despite proper warnings should be handed over to the security agencies and dealt with according to the law. 

The DGCA added that if a passenger refuses to wear the mask properly despite repeated warnings after entering the aircraft, he/she should be de-boarded, if need be, before departure. If a passenger refuses to wear a face mask or violates the Covid protocol for passengers during the course of the flight, he/she may be treated as 'unruly' and handled in accordance with the provisions of the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) by the airline concerned. 

The regulator made it amply clear that passengers are required to wear masks properly, covering their mouths and noses, during all times of the journey, from entering the departure airport to exiting the arrival airport. 

The DGCA informed the Delhi High Court on March 17 that delinquent passengers would be offloaded before departure and treated as 'unruly', PTI reported. Delhi High Court judge Justice C Hari Shankar had on March 8 taken suo motu cognisance of the situation after a bitter experience on an Air India flight from Kolkata to Delhi on March 5. Several passengers on that flight wore their masks below the chin and displayed a stubborn reluctance to wear their masks properly.     

"This behaviour was seen not only in the bus transporting the passengers from the airport to the flight but also within the flight itself. It was only on repeated entreaties made (by me) to the offending passengers that they condescended to wear their masks properly. On the cabin crew being questioned in this regard, they stated that they had directed all the passengers to wear masks, but were helpless in case they did not comply," the judge said.

This "alarming situation" led the high court to issue guidelines to all domestic airlines and the DGCA to ensure strict compliance with the Covid safety norms by the flyers, including penalties for the offenders and periodic checks of the aircraft. 

The court said that the situation where the country is seeing a renewed surge in Covid cases, which had shown signs of ebbing, is completely unconscionable. "Passengers in a flight are in a closed air-conditioned environment, and, even if one of the passengers suffers from Covid-19, the effect on other passengers could be cataclysmic. It is a matter of common knowledge that being within arm's length distance of a Covid-19 carrier, even if he is asymptomatic and is merely speaking, is more than sufficient to transmit the virus," it said.

The high court added that delinquent passengers should be offloaded and put on 'no-fly' lists. It asked the DGCA to prominently display on its website the norms to be followed by the passengers and cabin crew and directed the airlines to make available to the passengers along with the boarding pass the list of rules to be followed in-flight and the punishment for not adhering to them.     

Also read: What Covid-19? In India's aviation sector, social distancing suddenly loses all value

Furthermore, the high court ruled that the in-flight announcements that merely required the passengers to wear masks at all times should be modified to include a warning on the action to be taken in the event of a violation of the Covid safety rules. It suggested random checks on flights without prior notice to ensure compliance with the Covid norms. The court called for penal action against airlines that repeatedly fail to ensure compliance. 

The Delhi High Court bench of Justices Navin Chawla and C Hari Shankar noted that the court had been mulling to keep the suo motu case open to continue monitoring the implementation of its directions for compliance with Covid safety rules in the airports and onboard aircraft. However, in view of the proactive action taken by the DGCA, the court decided to close the case, according to the PTI report. The DGCA informed the court that its website has been suitably modified to include all relevant guidelines and circulars regarding Covid protocols. 

On March 15, the DGCA issued another circular listing directions for strict compliance by all stakeholders, PTI reported. 

Puri announced on March 26 that the airport authorities have been instructed to put passengers on 'no-fly' lists if they refuse to follow the standard operating procedures for combating Covid-19, ANI reported.

Following the hardening of stance by the Indian aviation authorities, airlines have already started to take action against passengers not following Covid safety rules. Carriers like IndiGo, AirAsia India and Alliance Air have either offloaded passengers or handed them over to security agencies for flouting Covid norms. 

However, are the passengers entirely to blame? Indian airports and airlines had been facing considerable flak for giving social distancing norms the short shrift. Plane Vanilla carried a story in November 2020 documenting how social distancing norms were being blatantly disobeyed, and highlighted the ire and anguish of some of the flyers on social media. There were photos and videos of jam-packed shuttle buses and queues in front of airline counters with people standing in very close proximity to each other. Airlines came up with dry, bureaucratic replies to the brickbats on social media. 

Therefore, even while considering that there are passengers who simply refuse to follow the Covid norms, deeming them to be too restrictive, the onus is also on the airline and airport authorities to do proper facilitation and ensure that the passengers follow the rules. 

One would expect the majority of the passengers to be law-abiding. The airlines and airport authorities have to be more meticulous. For example, only a certain number of people should be allowed on shuttle buses, with markings clearly specifying where to not stand and sit, to ensure social distancing. The shuttle buses, in this regard, can follow the example set by the Delhi Metro. Therefore, while penalties to ensure compliance with Covid norms is welcome, singling out the passengers as the main culprits is uncalled for.