Fear of flying

The personal anecdotes and news reports points to a rising phenomenon.

March 2, 2016 19:58
3 minute read.
El Al plane

El Al plane. (photo credit: PR)


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There have been increasing reports in recent years of haredi men disrupting flights to and from Israel by making special demands to be reseated, to avoid sitting next to women.

The personal anecdotes and news reports points to a rising phenomenon. Although those making the demands may only be a minute percentage of the ultra-Orthodox public, airlines servicing Israel must deal with the issue now, so that the majority of the flying public, including other religious passengers, have their rights protected, and planes remain a safe and pleasant environment.

In the latest case, Renee Rabinowitz, 81, is suing El Al claiming discrimination. Rabinowitz alleges she was asked to move seats to accommodate the wishes of an Orthodox man. According to media reports, even though she was seated in business class, where there is ample space between passengers, the Orthodox man complained of her proximity to him.

In another incident reported last week, a 36-year-old man from Beit Shemesh damaged two movie screens and attacked cabin crew during a flight. This was after he had reportedly gone around attempting to push the screens back up so as to avoid what he claimed was an “immodest” film.

In November 2015, a flight stopped showing a movie after 20 minutes because several Orthodox passengers complained. In September 2014, a flight from New York to Israel was delayed when dozens of men refused to sit down because of the presence of women. Instead of removing the men for disturbing the flight, the pilot announced that the aircraft would remain on the tarmac until the men agreed to sit. A similar incident took place last December. A petition was even launched that year demanding an end to the “intimidation and harassment” of female passengers.

These are only some of the well-known incidents, but the full scale of the number of flights delayed or number of women forced to move due to demands by haredi men is unknown.

In response to the man damaging the screens, El Al responded that it does not tolerant “violent behavior of any kind,” but in the case of Rabinowitz, it noted that “the attendants receive different and varied requests, and they try to assist as much as possible.”

The question is whether the demands only directed at women by haredi men properly fall under the rubric of “varied requests” – such as a family member trying to switch seats to be with his family or an overweight man wanting an aisle seat – or part of a pattern of discrimination against women.

If it were truly an issue of “modesty,” one would expect that haredi women would also be disrupting flights and refusing to sit down. It appears that the real story is that a small group of male religious extremists have learned that airlines will accommodate their requests, and have decided that they will determine where they will sit and when flights will take off.

An airline, of course, has the right to set regulations based on religious needs. An airline based in Malaysia employs fully clothed women in Islamic head scarves, and some Muslim airlines do not offer alcohol. If airlines serving a large number of haredi passengers wanted to institute a policy of pre-boarding in which haredi men are all seated in an area together, they could do that. The resulting policy would be similar to the male and female segregated bus lines that exist across Israel and which service haredi neighborhoods.

Barring the decision to have segregated male-only seating on airlines, the onus for deciding where someone sits and not delaying a flight must be on the passenger or tour operator servicing the haredi community. They must take the responsibility pre-flight to choose seats together.

Instead, they have foisted that responsibility onto the airlines and in so doing burdened secular and non-fanatic religious passengers, who constitute the majority of the flying public.

Airlines should consider instituting clear guidelines that arbitrary and discriminatory demands not to sit next to women due to “modesty” concerns will not be accommodated, and that people who disrupt flights over their seating arrangements will not be tolerated.

If necessary, police should be stationed at the entrance to problem-prone flights to remove men who refuse to sit down. An extreme minority cannot be allowed to dictate how the majority fly.

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