Airline seating sex discrimination controversy
Four airlines, British Airways, Qantas, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia, have attracted criticism for controversial seating policies which discriminate against adult male passengers on the basis of their sex. The companies refuse(d) to allow unaccompanied children to be seated next to adult males on their flights, leading to criticism that they regard all men as a danger to children.
The policies resulted in protests against the airlines and criticism by civil liberties and children's charities. British Airways ended its policy in August, 2010 following successful legal action undertaken by Mirko Fischer.
In March 2001, it was revealed that British Airways had a policy of not seating adult male passengers next to unaccompanied children (any person under the age of 15), even if the child's parents are elsewhere on the aircraft. This led to accusations that the airline considered all men to be potential paedophiles and women to be incapable of such abuse. The issue was first raised when a business executive had moved seats to be closer to two of his colleagues. A flight attendant then asked him to move because he was then sitting next to two unaccompanied children which was a breach of BA company policy. The executive said he felt humiliated as a result, stating "I felt I was being singled out and that I was being accused of something." British Airways admitted that staff were under instructions to keep men away from unaccompanied children whenever possible because of the dangers of male paedophiles.
This issue again came to prominence in 2005 following complaints by Michael Kemp who had been instructed to swap seats with his wife when on a GB Airways flight. The flight attendant informed him that for an adult male stranger to be sitting next to a child was a breach of the airline's child welfare regulations. This case was considered more unusual because the policy was applied even though the girl's parents were on board the flight. Michele Elliott, director of the children's charity Kidscape stated that the rule "is utterly absurd. It brands all men as potential sex offenders."
In 2006 politician (and later London Mayor) Boris Johnson, criticised the company after staff mistakenly attempted to separate him from his own children on a flight. He stated that those who create or defend such policies "fail to understand the terrible damage that is done by this system of presuming guilt in the entire male population just because of the tendencies of a tiny minority", linking such discrimination to the reduced number of male teachers and therefore lower achievement in schools. Like others, Johnson also raised the policy's flaw in ignoring female abusers and branded airlines with such policies as "cowardly" for giving in to "loony hysteria."
In January 2010 businessman Mirko Fischer from Luxembourg sued the airline for sex discrimination following an incident where he was forced to change seats as a result of the policy, thus separating him from his pregnant wife. Fischer stated "I was made to feel like a criminal in front of other passengers. It was totally humiliating." On 24 June 2010, Mr Fischer was successful in winning compensation from British Airways with the company admitting sex discrimination in Mr Fischer's case. BA paid £2,161 in costs and £750 in damages which Fischer donated to child protection charities. BA said that the "policy was now under review." In August 2010, British Airways changed its policy and began seating unaccompanied minors in a nondiscriminatory manner near the cabin crew.
Qantas and Air New Zealand
In November 2005, it was revealed that Qantas and Air New Zealand have seating policies similar to that of British Airways. The policy came to light following an incident in 2004 when Mark Wolsay, who was seated next to a young boy on a Qantas flight in New Zealand, was asked to change seats with a female passenger. A steward informed him that "it was the airline's policy that only women were allowed to sit next to unaccompanied children".
Mr. Wolsay, a shipping manager, stated he felt the policy "totally discriminatory", and the New Zealand Herald suggested to the airline that the implication of the policy was that "it considered male passengers to be dangerous to children". New Zealand's Green Party stated that the policy was discriminatory and reported the matter to the Human Rights Commissioner. On learning of the policies several protests occurred including a 22-hour tree top protest by double amputee Kevin Gill in Nelson. He stated that the policy could be the thin end of a wedge with men soon banned from sitting next to children at sports events and on other forms of public transport. Gill also raised the issue of what would happen if the policy had been race based and targeted ethnic minorities rather than men.
The publicity given to the issue in 2005 caused others to publicly describe their experiences. For example, Bethlehem fire officer Philip Price revealed he had been forced to switch seats in 2002 on an Air New Zealand flight to Christchurch.
Cameron Murphy, president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, criticised the policy and stated that "there was no basis for the ban". He said it was wrong to assume that all adult males pose a danger to children. The policy has also been criticised for failing to take female abusers into consideration as well as ignoring instances of children who commit sex offences. As with the British Airways case, critics such as school headmaster Kelvin Squire made the link between such policies and wider problems in society such as the shortage of male teachers, with others drawing parallels with the case of Rosa Parks.
Some have defended the policy, with New South Wales Commissioner for Children and Young People Gillian Calvert stating that there were more male sex offenders than female and thus "in the absence of any other test, it's one way in which the airline can reduce the risk of children travelling alone". She believes that the likelihood of an attack was rare but not impossible claiming "it's only a few men who do this sort of stuff, but when they do it they diminish all men". Air New Zealand spokesman David Jamieson said the company had no intention of reviewing the policy and acknowledged that it had been in place for many years.
In August 2012, the controversy resurfaced when a male nurse had to swap seats with a female passenger on a Qantas flight after the crew noticed he was sitting next to an unrelated girl travelling alone. The person concerned felt discriminated and humiliated before the flight guests as a pedophile. A Qantas spokesman defended the policy as consistent with that of other airlines in Australia and around the globe.
In 2012, it became public knowledge that Virgin Australia had also implemented this policy. Johnny McGirr (a 33-year old firefighter from Sydney) was told to move seats by a Virgin flight attendant. When asked why, the flight attendant cited policy and told Mr McGirr "you can't sit next to two unaccompanied minors." The attendant then asked a female passenger, "Can you please sit in this seat because he is not allowed to sit next to minors." A public backlash in Twitter has prompted Virgin Australia to announce it will review its policy barring men from sitting beside unaccompanied children on flights.
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