Virgin Australia has announced that it will rethink its policy of not allowing men to sit next to unaccompanied children in the wake of a public outcry about the practice.
The criticism of the policy ramped up this spring after Sydney fireman Johnny McGirr was asked to change seats because he was seated beside two unaccompanied boys, reports the Brisbane Times. McGirr expressed concern about the unspoken accusation that seems to prompt the practice.
McGirr was sitting next to two boys aged approximately eight and 10 on a flight from Brisbane when a flight attendant approached him and told him it was policy not to allow men to sit by unchaperoned children. According to the Times, he "said the attendant then asked a fellow female passenger, 'Can you please sit in this seat because he is not allowed to sit next to minors.'"
"After that I got really embarrassed because she didn't even explain," McGirr said. "I just got up and shook my head a little, trying to get some dignity out of the situation."
A former federal sex discrimination commissioner told the Sydney Morning Herald that "a policy formed on the basis of stereotypes about men was likely to be in breach of discrimination legislation."
A post on the Virgin Australia blog Friday acknowledged the issue, saying: "We understand the concerns raised around our policy for children travelling alone, a long standing policy initially based on customer feedback. In light of recent feedback, we’re now reviewing this policy. Our intention is certainly not to discriminate in any way."
The Herald reports that a Virgin spokeswoman told the paper that the policy was shared by Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand. Though the paper was unable to verify this information.
McGirr told the Brisbane Times that Virgin should have a staff chaperone sit with children for the entire flight, check on them periodically or ask parents to purchase a seat next to the child to be left empty.
This incident is not unique to Virgin Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald also reports the story of a male teacher who had been asked to swap seats with his wife on an Emirates flight so that he would not be beside an unaccompanied boy of 10. In 2010, a man filed a claim against British Airways alleging that "the airline's long-standing policy of forbidding men from sitting next to unaccompanied children not only cast the whole male gender in an unsavoury light, but was essentially sex discrimination," the BBC reports.
UPDATE 8/13/12: A 31-year-old male nurse told the Sydney Morning Herald about a similar experience he had on a Qantas flight. Daniel McCluskie was asked to switch seats with a woman so he wouldn't be seated next to young girl on a Wagga Wagga to Sydney flight.
"After the plane had taken off, the air hostess thanked the woman that had moved but not me, which kind of hurt me or pissed me off a bit more because it appeared I was in the wrong, because it seemed I had this sign I couldn't see above my head that said 'child molester' or 'kiddie fiddler'..." McCluskie told the paper.
Qantas told the Herald that its seating policy "is consistent with that of other airlines around the world and reflects parents' concerns."
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