Airline Seating Policy for Males Faces Discrimination Inquiry

July 7, 2008 - 8:16 PM

( - A statutory anti-discrimination body in New Zealand has opened an investigation into complaints that two airlines won't seat children traveling alone next to male passengers, a practice that has drawn strong criticism.

The country's Human Rights Commissioner's office agreed to take up the issue after receiving five formal complaints from people unhappy with a policy some see as implying all men are potential child molesters.

The controversial policy is longstanding but came to public attention earlier this week, when an Auckland man said he had been ordered by cabin staff to change seats with a woman because he had been assigned a seat next to an unaccompanied child passenger.

Mark Worsley, a father of two, described his embarrassment and subsequent anger about the incident, which occurred on a crowded plane during a short flight operated by the Australian national carrier, Qantas.

Air New Zealand has confirmed it also has such a policy, and a spokesman was quoted as saying it would not be changing it.

Human Rights Commissioner Joris De Bres said there may be a case against the airlines on the basis of 1993 human rights legislation that outlaws discrimination on gender groups.

A spokesman for the commissioner, Kallon Basham, said Thursday the dispute resolution procedure would involve the complainants and airline companies being called to mediation.

Should that fail, he said, the case would move to a legal tribunal where, if the complaints were upheld, settlement could include apologies, an order not to discriminate in the future and compensation.

The center-right opposition National Party's spokesman on political correctness, Wayne Mapp, said it was clear to him the policy was discriminatory.

Mapp has been contacted by several men with similar stories.

Men 'can't be trusted'

An academic at the New Zealand Massey University's College of Education, Michael Irwin, said the seating policy sent a message to society and children that men could not be trusted.

"It's saying to society that it's not men's role to be involved with their children or any children, and that's ridiculous," said Irwin, a former school principal.

Men could be made to feel alienated from parts of society focused on children, such as schools, childcare centers and nursing.

The Air New Zealand spokesman said the practice was common among airlines.

Two other international carriers operating in the Asia-Pacific region responded cautiously to queries.

United Airlines spokesman Tony Rasman said from Sydney Thursday that the airline did not have a written policy in place with regard to where unaccompanied children are seated.

Seating decisions are made at the discretion of staff allocating the seats and taking into account the wishes of guardians or parents.

Rasman said the issue was less likely to arise on United's long-haul flights, when instances of children traveling alone were less common.

Kate Pratley of Singapore Airlines said all minors flying alone were placed "in an aisle seat near the main crew area so that they can be easily monitored. Our policy is to seat unaccompanied minors by themselves or with other unaccompanied children."

Debate on the issue continues in newspaper columns, over the airwaves and online.

Most published or aired reaction has been critical of the airline policy, typified by such comments as: "I am tired of seeing all men marginalized because of a few;" and "It appears they are profiling every single male as a sexual predator or pedophile."

"To base this policy on the grounds that some men do molest children is as absurd as it would be to ban Muslims from sitting next to Christians -- or even from boarding the plane -- because some Muslims are terrorists," argued Dr. Volker Knuefermann in a letter to a local newspaper.

Some parents disagreed, saying they would prefer their children to be seated alongside a woman if traveling alone.

"This guy [Worsley], who has children, should think of the child first and not his bruised ego," said Caron Schwartz.

But former sex offender therapist and probation officer Stephen Gee called the airline policy "loopy hysteria."

"What's next?" asked Boudewyn Couprie. "Being asked to sit at the back of the plane? Rosa Parks should be turning in her grave."

See Earlier Story:
Airline Seating Policy 'Demonizes' Men (Nov. 29, 2005)

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.