Airline sex discrimination policy

Three airlines, British Airways, Qantas and Air New Zealand, have attracted criticism for controversial seating policies which discriminate against adult male passengers on the basis of their gender. The three airlines in question have strong relationships with each other, including formal alliances and part ownership in the past.

British Airways

In March 2001 it was revealed that British Airways has a policy of not seating adult male passengers next to unaccompanied children, even if the child's parents are elsewhere on the plane. This led to accusations that the airline considers 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 stewardess then asked to move because he was now sitting next to two unaccompanied children which was a breach of BA company policy. The executive, a head hunter, 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 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 stewardess 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 arguably even more notable than other cases as the girl's parents were in fact on board the flight but such a policy still applied. Michele Elliot, director of the children's charity Kidscape stated that the rule "is utterly absurd. It brands all men as potential sex offenders"

The most high profile victim of the policy was prominent British MP, Boris Johnson, who criticised the company after they 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 issue of why female abusers are ignored and branded airlines with such policies "cowardly" for giving in to "loony hysteria".

Qantas and Air New Zealand

In November 2005, it was revealed that Qantas (along with Air New Zealand) have similar policies. 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 on 2005 caused other victims of the discrimination to come forward and express their outrage at the policy. 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 of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties president criticised the policy and stated that "there was no basis for the ban". He said it was wrong to assume that all adult males posed a danger for 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 some critics made the link between such policies and wider problems in society such as the shortage of male teachers .

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