Should Airlines Consider Religious Beliefs in How Seats Are Assigned?

ltra-Orthodox Jewish men are reportedly increasingly delaying flights because of the seat to which they have been assigned if they find that a woman is seated next to it, resulting in them either hesitating — or outright absolutely refusing — to be seated until either he or the woman moves…

…which brings a question to mind: should airlines consider religious beliefs in how seats are assigned?

Several flights from New York to Israel during the past year have been delayed when ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have refused to sit next to women, according to this article written by Michael Paulson of The New York Times, who wrote that “some ultra-Orthodox travelers have tried to avoid mixed-sex seating for years. But now the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population is growing rapidly because of high birthrates. Ultra-Orthodox men and their families now make up a larger share of airline travelers to Israel and other locations, giving them more economic clout with airlines, and they are making their views more widely known in response to what they see as the sexualization of society.”

Not all ultra-Orthodox Jewish men believe similarly in what can be considered an extreme measure pertaining to seat assignments aboard airplanes. In response to this article which I first wrote on this topic back on Tuesday, December 30, 2014, Daniel Eleff of Dans Deals posted this comment that “I’ve never had an issue with my seatmate and these stories horrify me. Unless you’re obese there’s no reason you should have to touch the person sitting next to you. And if you are obese-you should be buying 2 tickets or sitting in the pointy nose section of the plane.”

Even world leaders are apparently not exempt from this issue. Angela Merkel — the chancellor of Germany — and other female leaders reportedly had their images removed from a photograph printed in an ultra-Orthodox newspaper which originally depicted her marching with men, according to this article written by Jodi Rudoren of The New York Times.

In my opinion, that is not an act of adhering with religious beliefs. That is inaccurate and irresponsible journalism bordering on outright censorship and discrimination against women; and it is disrespectful and inexcusable — especially when rallying against religious extremism.

Ironically, some may think that the act of thrusting and forcing one’s personal beliefs upon the general population in secular situations is a form of religious extremism — as well as possibly fanaticism. It is one thing to ask nicely for another person to accommodate someone who may feel uncomfortable for whatever reason — with which many people would consider complying if treated with respect; but to create a situation which could exacerbate the original issue — especially if the uncomfortable person has an attitude of superiority — is unnecessary. Delaying a flight could most likely garner more disdain than sympathy for the uncomfortable person.

As I have originally written in this article, many people — except for those who practice atheism and agnosticism, to an extent — believe in the power of religion in some way, shape or form. Some are Orthodox in their beliefs; while others tend to be less strict. Some will follow their chosen religion to the very last letter; while others may pick and choose which parts of their religion in which they believe and which parts they do not believe.

Freedom of religion is an idealistic thought in which everyone has a right to practice their beliefs in any way they see fit. However, there are many different religions practiced in this world — and each religion has so many variations — that they may seem foreign or unusual to those not familiar with that religion. This can cause a harmless distraction at best — or intolerance which leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding which may be strong enough to lead to adversarial actions.

What is considered normal to you may be strange and unknown to others; and vice versa — and therein lies the conundrum. Consideration and understanding for other people and what they believe should be practiced by everyone in order to prevent uncomfortable situations from turning into outright battles. There needs to be compromises to keep situations stable and in control.

While I believe in the freedom of religion, I have always felt that differences in religions may cause more conflict and controversy rather than peace and harmony; that they may create more problems and issues than resolve them, as they are purportedly designed to do. Politics as well as religion are discussed with such passion and conviction that fierce and controversial debates usually erupt as a result. Try as people might, rarely do the beliefs of a person in terms of politics and religion ever change based on an argument.

I believe that spiritual beliefs are a personal and private matter, shared only when appropriate. I personally would not enter an airport lounge and start praying — but that is just me. You may not agree with what I believe, but that is all right — different belief systems make the world go ’round and add flavor to society, despite the potential shortcomings of religion in general. I believe that there is usually a time and place for everything — and even though I do not believe an airport lounge is a place to pray, that does not mean I believe it is the wrong thing to do, either. I certainly have absolutely no interest in attempting to restrict someone from freely practicing their religious beliefs — nor should someone purposely attempt to impose their religious beliefs on me.

Where is the threshold as to what is acceptable as opposed to what is inappropriate? As I said earlier, that is subjective and cannot be answered definitively.

Rather, I believe that it is more important to keep an open mind and be respectful and considerate to other people around you — whether it is you or someone else engaging in their religious beliefs.

As to whether or not airlines consider religious beliefs in how seats are assigned, I am wondering if airlines should not include a specific question pertaining to special seating — that is, if a comment section for custom requests is not already included — during the booking process to prevent situations similar to the aforementioned ones from occurring. Could a potentially simple technology solution be the answer? Should strictly religious people compromise their beliefs in order to participate in the latest innovations in which the world has to offer — such as fly as passengers aboard an airplane?

What are your thoughts?

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

2 thoughts on “Should Airlines Consider Religious Beliefs in How Seats Are Assigned?”

  1. Joey says:

    What is El-Al’s policy on this issue? For Israel’s national airline, I can see them having an all-male or all-female section on their planes since they most likely deal with this issue almost every day on all their flights.
    However for mainstream US airlines, they shouldn’t make it a policy. If those guys want to sit next to another male, then they should travel in pairs and sit on the 2-seaters (or travel in trios and sit on the 3-seaters.)
    BTW, I found it amusing that you chose to put a photo of Etihad seats on this blog post. For some reason I highly doubt orthodox Jewish men travelling to Israel would fly Etihad. 😉

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Sharp observation on the seats, Joey.

      I did not have any other seat pictures available at the time which were photographed by me; but I did eventually find a better photograph and replaced it…

      …and I am not sure what is the policy of El Al…

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