Skip to main content

Erin Anderssen

Don't want to sit next to me because I am a woman? There's always a female-free space in the baggage hold.

Ask me to move because your weepy toddler has been placed three aisles away from you? I can accommodate you, though I might grumble a little if I lose my aisle seat.

The more airlines scrimp and save, the more hostile passengers get with each other. Who can blame us? Stuffed together for long flights, charged for every extra, including luggage – unlike those entitled senators, we'd be grateful for a sliver of Camembert these days, no need to warm it. No wonder people are losing it over meal trays and reclined seats.

The latest controversy: women and children.

According to The New York Times, there has been an increasing number of cases of Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next women during flights, and solving the problem by standing in the aisle until a flight attendant asks the woman to move (to the back of the plane, perhaps?) or finds them a more acceptable spot. For ultra-conservative Orthodox Jewish men, making physical contact with a woman other than their wife is prohibited. Their concern is realistic, given how cramped airline seating is these days.

Switching seats is arguably a minor inconvenience in the big picture, but this is only the latest angle on a recurring debate – how far do we go, both personally and as a society, to accommodate religious freedom in public spaces? Let's say a fundamentalist Christian got on a plane and refused to sit next to an LGBT couple on their honeymoon – would this be okay? The airlines, on the perpetual hunt for more coin, could always offer passengers a "suitable seatmate surcharge" – choose the sex, gender, weight and race of your preference.

In the New York Times piece, one female passenger agreed to move – just to get the flight going when the man wouldn't take the window seat beside her. In another example, a man delayed a flight for 15 to 20 minutes because he refused to accept the spot he'd been assigned. The situation has become so common, the Israel Religious Action Center has started a campaign urging women not to give up their seats. Anat Hoffman, the group's executive director told The New York Times, "I have 100 stories."

After observing an incident on a flight between New York and Israel, documentary filmmaker Jeremy Newberger told the Times, "I grew up conservative, and I'm sympathetic to Orthodox Jews. But this Hasid came on, looking very uncomfortable, and wouldn't even talk to the woman, and there was five to eight minutes of 'What's going to happen?' before the woman acquiesced and said, 'I'll move.' It felt like he was being a yutz."

In a different dilemma, the Ottawa Citizen recently detailed the plight of parents getting on planes only to find they were seated far from their young children, and the difficulty of having the problem fixed. In the comments about the story, some passengers, having paid to reserve seats, objected to moving. (Fine by me, one parent of toddlers wryly observed, "that sounds like free babysitting.")

Moving isn't mandatory, in either instance. Seat selection is an equal opportunity, first-come-first-serve enterprise. If that's objectionable, if you have a problem sitting next to half the population, then perhaps mixed-company travel just isn't for you. Religious beliefs do not make it okay to shame and inconvenience another passenger – or an entire flight while you delay departure. Pressuring a woman to move because she's a woman is gender discrimination. Under no circumstances, should the woman be expected to move, nor should she – unless it's into first class.

On the other hand, making it possible for young children – or any other vulnerable person who needs assistance – to sit with their family members is a gracious thing to do, for both airlines and passengers. (It's also reasonable for the airline to refund the reservation fee to someone who changes seats.) Some critics have proposed that everyone just pay the $25 surcharge. But maybe the plane was full. Maybe it was a last-minute flight. Maybe they just forgot. Correcting that oversight is a kindness – for the preschooler who was unable to remind grandma to reserve her seats, and for the unfortunate passenger stuck beside him.

The quarters may be cramped and the Camembert cold, but surely, when the circumstances call for it, we can still make room for a sliver of civil society.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct