Virgin Australia is taking a second look at its policy of not allowing male passengers to sit next to kids flying alone after a traveler complained the airline made him feel like a pedophile.
“Because I am a man I am presumed to be a predator,” the passenger, identified by Australian media as 33-year-old firefighter Johnny McGirr, wrote in a blog post this week.
“The incident left me angry, embarrassed and acutely aware of how society has become fearful of everyone.”
After McGirr’s account generated angry comments calling Virgin Australia’s rule sexist, the airline on Friday announced the policy is now under review.
“We understand the concerns raised around our policy for children travelling alone, a long standing policy initially based on customer feedback,” the carrier said in a statement. “Our intention is certainly not to discriminate in any way.”
The incident happened this spring on a flight from Sydney to Brisbane.
When McGirr boarded the plane, he noticed that he would be sitting in a row of three seats next to two boys, about 10 years old, he wrote. McGirr was supposed to have the window seat, but since one of the boys was already in it, he took the aisle seat.
A flight attendant then approached him before takeoff and said he would have to move. When he asked why, she said, “Well, because you are male, you can’t be seated next to two unaccompanied minors,” according to McGirr’s account.
Since there were no empty seats, the flight attendant asked a female passenger to swap seats with him.
“As I collected my things from the seat pocket I could see people looking at me and wondering why I was being moved. I was red from embarrassment,” McGirr wrote.
“The irony of the situation is that I am a(n) emergency service worker and if the children were in trouble I would be given the responsibility of protecting them.”
After the flight, McGirr e-mailed the airline to complain and said Virgin Australia quoted him this company policy in response: “Unaccompanied children will have spare seats allocated next to them when they are flying. In the case of a full plane then a female will be sat next to the children.”
Virgin Australia did not respond to a request for comment, but debate over the policy is raging on its Facebook page.
“Discrimination is discrimination, a pedophile is a pedophile, male or female. To make this policy fair and just, designating an entire section just to children flying un-accompanied would be a more justified one, rather than blatantly insulting me by assuming that because I am male,” wrote Facebook user Shaun Bryson.
Others expressed support for the airline’s rule, noting they would be more comfortable with a woman sitting next to their child.
“I reckon this guy should get over it. When I have kids, if they must travel alone id [sic] like to know they are safe,” wrote Facebook user Jessica Parrish. “Safety is more important than hurting someone's feelings!!”
How do U.S. airlines deal with kids flying alone?
US Airways does not have a formal policy on who can or cannot sit next to unaccompanied minors, but the carrier defers to the expertise of its gate agents and crew members in such situations, spokeswoman Liz Landau told NBC News.
“We also intentionally do not announce the boarding of unaccompanied minors so as not to draw unwanted attention to children traveling alone,” she said.
There is usually no preference given to the gender of passengers sitting next to children flying alone on American Airlines, but the carrier tries to seat the kids in an aisle seat near the front of the coach cabin so flight attendants can keep an eye on them, said spokesman Ed Martelle.
Other major U.S. airlines, including United and Delta, did not immediately respond to inquiries about whether their policies include any restrictions on who may sit next to children flying alone.
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