Passengers on Porter flight clash when male ultra-Orthodox Jew refuses to sit next to woman

The National Post, Canada/July 29, 2015

By Sadaf Ahsan

An uncomfortable moment between passengers aboard a New Jersey-to-Toronto flight has renewed the debate over reasonable accommodation and the balance between competing rights.

Former Halifax chef Christine Flynn said a flight attendant asked if she would move when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man refused to sit next to her aboard Porter Airlines Flight 121 on Monday. She declined, uncomfortable with the other passenger’s manner, she said.

“He came down the aisle, he didn’t actually look at me … or make eye contact. He turned to the gentleman across the aisle and said, ‘Change,’” Flynn told CBC News.

The matter was resolved when another passenger volunteered to switch seats, but Flynn is now seeking an apology from Porter.

“He could have made a plan, he could have put in a request,” Flynn said on CBC of the other passenger. “When someone doesn’t look at you, and when someone doesn’t acknowledge you as person because of your gender, you’re a lot less willing to be accommodating.

“Leaving it to the last minute and expecting me to move is appalling. He’s expecting me to fall in to that archetypical feminine role and acquiesce.”

Brad Cicero, director of communications and public affairs at Porter Airlines, said the situation isn’t common, but it isn’t unique, and the airline is considering a formal policy.

“This was not a situation where she was forced to move; we always want to accommodate all of our passengers. But we are looking into formalizing the informal ways in which we’ve handled this in the past.”

Air Canada’s manager of corporate communications, Peter Fitzpatrick, said the airline tries to accommodate requests for seat changes, for whatever reason, when possible.

‘‘Each situation is different and many variables come into play, including how full the plane is. Our crews do their best to accommodate customer requests, and we have found fellow passengers do the same,” said Fitzpatrick.

Such disputes are not confined to Judaism, or to travel.

In the last few years, several flights have been delayed from New York to Israel, causing anywhere from 15 minute to several hour-long delays, when ultra-Orthodox Jewish men on board refused to sit next to women.

Most flights out of Saudi Arabia — where much of society is segregated — involve rearranging passengers to better accommodate men and women who do not want to sit next to each other; often, women will leave flights entirely if they have to sit alone.

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