Can airlines have any justification for a policy of not seating male passengers next to unaccompanied children? It’s an old controversy, reignited this week by the case of firefighter Johnny McGirr, who blogged about his recent experience on a Virgin Australia flight. After taking his seat next to two unaccompanied boys, McGirr was asked by a flight attendant to swap seats with a female passenger for the safety of the children. In the consequent media firestorm, Virgin Australia announced they would be reviewing the policy in the light of “feedback.”
The company insisted the policy was not intended to discriminate, which reveals a rather shaky grasp of the English language. A policy which allows – or even encourages – one gender to do something while forbidding the other to do likewise is discriminatory by definition. The real question is whether such discrimination could be necessary or justified.
Airlines have been here before. The policy first attracted headlines for British Airways back in 2001, and in 2010 the company abandoned the policy after a sex discrimination suit ruled it unlawful. Other airlines around the world, including Qantas and Air New Zealand, have faced complaints, claims or sporadic bursts of controversy over the years. Even fathers travelling with their own kids have been known to face embarrassment. In 2006 a certain Boris Johnson had to prove his paternity to British Airways staff before being permitted to sit next to his own children. (Yes, countless punchlines spring to mind, but it’s hardly the place.)
In any organisation serving young people, from the small playgroup to the largest multinational, child protection policy is rightly considered to be of paramount concern. It is true that over the decades there have been a handful of reported instances of children being sexually assaulted on board flights. Some of these did involve unaccompanied children being molested by the passenger sat next to them, but in others the child was accompanied by a parent at the time, and in most, the attacker had moved seats to get close to the child.
In other words, the number of recorded instances which would have been prevented by such a policy is a fraction of an already infinitesimal number. It is also impossible to quantify how many instances of molestation might have been prevented by an adult male seated next to unaccompanied children, rather than the empty seat which could tempt a predator. Rather more seriously, French pilots have warned about the risks of such policies leaving unaccompanied children without assistance, such as help with seatbelts or oxygen masks, immediately to hand in an emergency.
Child protection policies should be based on expert advice and evidence of best practice. It is a dubious policy that can be abandoned at the first whiff of negative publicity or customer discontent. The brief statement announcing Virgin Australia’s change of heart made no claims as to their previous policy being based on expert advice, instead saying it was based on “customer feedback.” Four days ago I emailed the company’s press office asking for clarification of the historical basis of the policy. So far they have declined to reply. I shall therefore take them at the word of their statement, and assume it is based not on expert risk assessment, but on the preferences of the parents who booked their children onto the plane.
Speaking as a father of two young boys, I can confirm that we parents can be highly irrational, paranoid and risk-averse when worrying about the welfare of our own. That doesn’t mean we should always be indulged in our paranoia or prejudice, particularly when it is actively harmful to society as a whole. The airlines’ policy is a salient crystallisation of the widespread and corrosive belief that adult males represent a significant danger to children. This myth shields us from the true nature of child abuse, a crime overwhelmingly committed by family members, trusted adults or professional carers – a significant minority of whom are female. It also breeds cynical suspicion of men who wish to work with children, especially at pre-school and primary level. There is little dispute that such stigma contributes to the paltry proportion of male applicants for child-caring and teaching roles. This in turn reinforces social values which, from the earliest age, teach each generation that childcare is fundamentally women’s work.
I sympathise with men like Johnny McGirr who are publicly humiliated by air cabin crews enforcing an irrational policy, but their wounded pride is not really the issue here. Much more significant is that policies like these, and the toleration and indulgence of the prejudices behind them, drive a wedge of caution between men and children in our societies. Such attitudes deprive men of rewarding career opportunities, and deprive children of a less gender-rigid future, while at the most immediate level, they deprived a couple of young boys of the chance to have a spontaneous, unscripted chat with the real-life firefighting hero sat next to them on a plane. That, perhaps, is the biggest shame of all.