Despite public outcry over the disruption of an El Al flight from New York to Israel last week after male ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers refused to be seated next to women, El Al says it has no official policy for dealing with the issue and has no intention of putting one in place.
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A spokeswoman for the airline said that its “policy in general is to try to accommodate any customer request,” and that it deals with requests on a case-by-case basis.
On Sunday a petition was launched by Sharon Shapiro of Chicago on Change.org urging El Al to protect female passengers from on-flight “harassment” by ultra-Orthodox men who are trying to switch seats. Shapiro wrote that El Al permits “female passengers to be bullied, harassed, and intimidated into switching seats which they rightfully paid for and were assigned to.” More than 1,200 people had signed the petition as of Tuesday.
El Al declined to comment on these claims, saying that the airline deals with each complaint individually. An El Al spokeswoman said that the company has no plans to put into place any mechanism or policy for dealing with the issue. The petition suggests for example, "perhaps indirectly El Al can refer such requests to independent private travel agencies who buy block seating for such purposes. Religious passengers could then purchase tickets through those private agencies that will guarantee same sex seating."
Many Haredim insist on separation between men and women, particularly on long flights such as the 10-hour one from New York to Tel Aviv, and often ask fellow passengers to switch seats, whether directly or through a flight attendant. Also, Haredi men often request to sit together to make it easier for them to congregate for morning and evening prayers, and so they can keep activities that go against their religious beliefs, as well as passengers eating non-kosher food, at a safe distance.
‘99.9 percent of time there’s a solution’
An El Al flight attendant who worked with the company for eight years until last year, and who asked to remain nameless to protect her professional standing, said flight crews receive no special training for dealing with the issue, which comes up on all flights with Haredi passengers. Flight attendants approach customers to ask them to switch seats, she said, adding, “99.9 percent of the time there is a solution.”
With only 45 minutes to get out of the gate, the priority is to ensure that the flight boards without missing its take-off slot, she said. “I know we act without a policy, and it is understood that we are trying to get everyone home.”
Although she didn’t recall any incidents of what she would characterize as harassment, she recalled “uncomfortable” flights that were held up because men refused to be seated, as well as flights on which female passengers felt uncomfortable, insulted or indignant over being asked to move.
Neither El Al nor any other airline that Haaretz spoke to offers customers the option of specifying the gender of the passenger sitting next to them when booking a ticket. Passengers can state preferences at the check-in desk, but there is no guarantee they can be accommodated before boarding, often leaving passengers and flight attendants to sort out seating requests after boarding.