Airlines risk claims for ban stereotyping men
By Andrew Clark
November 30, 2005
AUSTRALIA'S leading airlines could be vulnerable to claims of discrimination against men because of a controversial policy of banning men from sitting next to unaccompanied children on aircraft.
Experts in equality law yesterday criticised Qantas, Virgin Blue and other carriers including Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines for stereotyping men as a potential danger to youngsters.
The practice of separating men from lone children came to light after a complaint from a New Zealander, Mark Worsley, who says he felt "extremely humiliated" when a Qantas flight attendant told him to swap seats with a woman after take-off on a flight between Christchurch and Auckland.
Mr Worsley, 37, a shipping manager and father of two-year-old twins, had been allocated a seat next to a boy aged about eight. He was forced to change places with a woman who was reluctant to move because she was travelling with her husband.
"Nobody wants to be pointed out as a possible pedophile," he said. "It was humiliating. In the beginning, I was embarrassed; later on, I was angry."
The president of the NSW anti-discrimination board, Stepan Kerkyasharian, said that on face value, the policy could be open to a legal challenge.
"If this had happened in NSW, I would think there would be a case for him to take it up with the anti-discrimination board," Mr Kerkyasharian said.
Under federal law, sex discrimination is illegal in the provision of goods and services.
Beth Gaze, a discrimination expert at Melbourne University's law school, said exemptions applied in only a few circumstances, such as residential care for children.
"There is a problem in where we draw the line in using stereotypes for predictive risk minimisation," Ms Gaze said.
Mr Worsley said he was initially told by Qantas staff that the policy was mandatory under New Zealand's civil aviation regulations.
But when he raised it with the country's authorities, they said it was nothing to do with them.
Qantas said yesterday its procedures "reflect parents' concerns and the need to maximise children's safety".
The airline said that wherever possible unaccompanied children were placed near crew areas or alongside an empty seat. On full flights, they are put next to women. Other airlines said they had similar guidelines.
A Cathay Pacific spokesman said the airline felt females tended to "relate more to young kids".
Now, in my day...we used to ensure that this didn't happen when we edited the flight (INTL). It was an "unwritten" rule that we never sat males next to UM's. I don't know if it was specifically to avoid the sort of embarrassment that this chap went through, but it certainly provided peace of mind to the UM's family.
Ansett used to have a facility whereby parents of UM's could pay a one way fare to have aFA sit next to the child for the entire flight. I'm sure this wasn't a unique policy, but when crewing such an instance, we always had to select female crew...male only as a last resort!
The handling of this case is pretty poor IMHO. It should never have gotten to that late stage. I feel he has a right to be aggrieved. As a society, we tend to think the worst of men who show affection to children not their own...especially if you don't know what the relationship is. This type of action reinforces that view.
The way I see it, Airlines must feel that by sitting a female next to a UM, they are minimising their risk. Does this mean that the crew can reduce their diligence? Would the responsible FA pay more or less attention depending on the passenger next to the UM?
So, is it PC madness eroding our outlook on society? Does the "ends' justify the "means"? Should we ban UM's altogether?