In the last week, there have been two incidents of women relenting to pressure from airlines to give up their seats to accommodate Orthodox Jewish bigots who refused to be seated next to them. This should be as unacceptable as Klansmen asking blacks to change seats.
And let us stress that the ugliest feature of these events was that each airline, the first El Al, the second, Austrian Airlines, enabled the Orthodox Jews (specifically, Haredi) in their illegal demands. As we’ll explain, the airlines had the ability under the terms of their legal agreements (their passenger contracts of carriage) to do the the right thing, which was to insist that the bigots sit in their assigned seats or leave the plane, and if they didn’t, to have them hauled off by airport security guards.
The reason these episodes matter to men as well as women is that the underlying issue is the same as the one with the impermissible removal of Dr. Dao from a United Airlines flight, in which his man-handlers broke his nose and several teeth and gave him a concussion.
Like United, these airlines were pressuring passengers to give up seats for to preserve their revenues, when the passengers were completely within their legal rights to stay put.
And if you think my characterization of these Haredi is over the top, consider this quote from the Times of Israel:
Responding to the story on Twitter, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called for a severe response to such incidents.
“Once again a primitive group of Haredis moved and humiliated women on a flight,” he wrote. “If for once they’re removed from the flight without hesitation or recompense, this disgrace will end.”
“Primitive” is a useful framing. If these Haredi want to enjoy the conveniences of the modern world, they need to conform with its rules. If they don’t want to sit next to a woman, buy the next to them, or fly with a male buddy, or charter a plane.
The first episode occurred a week ago, when four Haredi on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv refused to sit next to women. Here are the details from the Times of Israel:
“The crew tries to solve the problem. This doesn’t work. The female flight attendants clear space for the authoritative men on board… the ultra-Orthodox are not ready to speak with, or even look at the female flight attendants,” wrote [Khem] Rotem in a Facebook post Friday.
“All the men in the crew, except for the captain, are now only dealing with this instead of preparing for takeoff and serving the passengers. The ultra-Orthodox don’t blink. One of the crew members threatens: ‘If you don’t sit down, you can get off the plane right now,’” added Rotem.
However, the crew backed down and instead pressured women, two of whom apparently with difficulty gave up their seats (one pictures the bullies making it physically difficult in light of Rotem’s ““after a lot of writhing, shouts and maneuvering”), the plane took off 75 minutes late.
To their credit, other Orthodox men on the plane made clear they disapproved of the bigots:
Rotem noted that other yarmulke-clad men aboard expressed “surprise and revulsion” at the four ultra-Orthodox men’s conduct.
The worst of this case is that El Al already had a court judgement in Israel saying that asking women to give up seats was against the law. Per the Times of Israel:
Last year, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that El Al cannot force women to change seats at the request of ultra-Orthodox men. The court agreed with Israel Religious Action Center, which brought the suit, in ruling the practice was illegal and discriminatory.
Was El Al relying on a forgiving interpretation of what “force” means, or that the incident took place in New York?
It took the threat of a boycott to get El Al to belatedly implement a policy to uphold women’s legal rights to their assigned seats. From The Insider:
On Monday, the CEO of a major Israeli tech company posted about this incident on LinkedIn and threatened to boycott El Al Airlines.
Barak Eilam, the CEO of NICE Systems, posted the link to an article about this incident from the Times of Israel on LinkedIn.
“At NICE we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion,” Eilam wrote on the LinkedIn post. “NICE will not fly @EL AL Israel Airlines until they change their practice and actions discriminating women.” ….
On Monday, Gonen Usishkin, the CEO of El Al, said in a statement to the Associated Press that he had ordered that “any traveler who refuses to sit next to another traveler will be immediately removed from the flight.”
This is what should have happened in the first place.
As we explained at length in the Dr. Dao incident on United last year, when an elderly man was dragged from his seat and severely injured in the process so that United could seat four employees it wanted to transport to man another airplane, a passenger’s right to his seat, once seated, is extremely strong under airlines’ contracts of carriage, which is the governing agreement when you buy your ticket from them.
Mind you, the situation is completely different before you have boarded and taken your seat. Airlines can prevent passengers from boarding for all sort of reasons, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that the rules that apply once you have boarded and are sitting in your assigned seat apply in other contexts.1
However, given the Jerusalem Court ruling, accommodating bigots is not a “reasonable reason”. Moreover, a passenger refusing to sit is disruptive to a flight, and that is clear grounds for removal. This isn’t hard if you want to do the right thing….but that means giving up the revenues of the seats the bigots had intended to occupy.
Reader Kevin W sent us word of the latest episode, in which four women on an Austrian Airlines flight were cowed into changing seats. From Haaretz:
The pilot of an Austrian Airlines flight had to leave the cockpit and convince several women to change their seats after haredi Orthodox men refused to sit next to female passengers.
The Friday morning flight from Tel Aviv to Vienna left 40 minutes late and was delayed for another half hour in Austrian airspace after failing to miss the morning rush hour, Ynet reported.
The 26 haredi men had been scheduled to fly to Vienna on the Polish national airline LOT, but when that flight was cancelled moved to the Austrian Airlines flight.
Stewardesses on the flight reportedly tried to convince the men to take their assigned seats but those next to women refused. Eventually, the pilot came out and convinced several women to move their seats, Ynet reported.
Notice the language, “convince”. This is a tacit admission that the airline did not have the right to make the women give up their seats.2
Now admittedly this was a nastier situation than the El Al flight in New York. 26 passengers is close to an occupying army. But the flip side is they were not originally scheduled to be on this flight.
Hoever, the airline clearly favored revenues over doing the right thing (I blame this on the airline because first, the airplane is under the operational control of the airline until the cabin door closes; only then does the captain become the Decider; second, this went on so long and became so heated that it is a virtual certainly that the crew contacted the airline for instructions).
The airplane should have gone to the gate, deboarded everyone, and refused to reboard the Haradi. They might have had to get another plane to effect this, but if they emptied the plane with some crew members cycling in and out, it would have become intolerably hot plenty fast.
But doing the right thing is costly, particularly given how tightly equipment and crews are scheduled. So Austrian Airlines went the path of least resistance and pushed the women.
What Can You Do?
As Yair Lapid said, this sort of thing is going to continue until misbehaving Haradi are removed from flights. And the more airlines enable this sort of thing, the more it will occur. Note that both flights were delayed, so the airlines still incurred costs and some passengers probably missed connections.
So far, the incidents have occurred only on flights in and out of Tel Aviv, but given that only four men were able to get their way on the El Al flight out of New York, I would not dismiss the possibility of this sort of thing happening on other routes if more than one Haredi man was flying.
And more generally, as with the Dr. Dao affair, this is an object lesson on what to do if you have taken your assigned seat on a plane, have been behaving properly, and are asked to leave the plane (as with Dr. Dao) or give up your seat for a bad cause. Some suggestions:
1. Above all, do not raise your voice or lift your arms up. Do not give the airline the excuse to depict you as disruptive and therefore a safety threat.
2. If you have the presence of mind, turn on the audio recorder on your phone.
3. Tell them you reviewed their Contract of Carriage, you do not believe they have the right to ask you to give up your seat, but you are prepared to be persuaded if they will pull up their airline’s web page and show you the language they think applies.
4. If they want you to take a later flight, you could go the route of asking for compensation. Be sure to insist on cash, not flight vouchers.
5. If (as appears to have been the case on the El Al and Austrian Air flight) it becomes apparent that they are trying to persuade you, as opposed to threaten you, engage as little as you can. Repeat that you believe you have the right to your seat under their own contract. And then ignore them. Do your best to feign doing something else, like reading a newspaper. Perhaps you have a gift for getting into extended debates and staying cool, but moat people don’t. The most important thing is not to give the airline any grounds for depicting you as belligerent, and the simplest way to do that is to say as little as is humanely possible. If you feel you have to respond, keep it to the bare minimum, such as: “I’ve heard what you’ve said and I’ve already given you my answer. There isn’t anything more to say.”
6. If anyone near you seems sympathetic, when the crew members go away to confer, ask if they would be a witness and ask for their business card.
There will eventually be a case where some Haredi try this nonsense again and the airline calls security for them refusing to take their seats. I hope a crew member is alert enough to ask for any women security guards on duty to participate in the removal. The threat of being touched by women would put the Haredi in an untenable spot.
Update: From our Jerri-Lynn, via e-mail:
That happened to me once, on a NYC-London flight. Orthodox man demanded I give up an aisle seat. I refused – told him politely that if he couldn’t sit next to me, it was up to him to pre-book accordingly.
Flight attendant switched his seat.
There’s a coda.
I was polite, but firm – several passengers witnessed this interaction.
As I was getting ready to leave the ‘plane, I leaned forward. Good thing I did – because a bag came crashing out of the overhead bin and landed just where my head had been. If I hadn’t leaned forward, the bag would have broken my neck. No question.
Guess whose bag it was? I turned and looked into his eyes – he was terrified. And I could tell this was an accident.
But, if the bag had hit me, there’s no way he would ever have been able to convince anyone he hadn’t dropped it on me on purpose.
1 Now in fact El Al, unlike US airlines, has more sweeping and vague language about its authority to “reassign” seats:
We reserve the right to assign or reassign seats at any time, even after boarding of the aircraft. This may be necessary for operational, safety, security or other reasonable reasons.
2 The form of the Austrian Airlines “General Conditions of Carriage” is much closer to the US practice of enumerating specific grounds for removal. I did not find any language contemplating re-assigning seats of passengers who had boarded and were in their assigned seat, aside from broad rights regarding safety.
The Haredi passsengers, in refusing even to interact with the female members of the flight crew, could have been removed on that basis alone
We may also refuse to carry you or your Baggage if one of the following has occurred or we have well-founded reasons to believe it will occur:
7.1.1. Provided this action is necessary to comply with national or international regulations; or
7.1.2. Your carriage or that of your Baggage may jeopardise or threaten the security, health or the comfort of Passengers or crew; or
7.1.3. Your mental or physical condition, including your impairment from alcohol or drugs, presents a hazard or risk to yourself, other Passengers, the crew or to property; or
7.1.4. You have committed misconduct on an earlier flight, and we have reason to believe that such conduct may be repeated or
7.1.5. You have refused to submit to a security check; or
7.1.6. You have not paid the applicable fare taxes, fees or charges; or
7.1.7. You do not appear to have valid travel documents, or you may seek to enter a country which you are only entitled to transit or for which you do not have valid travel documents, you have destroyed your documents during the flight, or you refuse to surrender them to the flight crew – against receipt – when so requested; or
7.1.8. You present a Ticket that has been acquired unlawfully either to us or our Authorised Agents which has been reported as lost or stolen; or you cannot prove that you are the person named in the Ticket; or
7.1.9. You have failed to comply with the requirements set out in Article 3.3 above, concerning Flight Coupon sequence and use, or you present a Ticket that has been altered in any way, other than by us or our Authorised Agent or
7.1.10. You fail to observe our instructions with respect to safety and security and warning signs or other instructions.