Could Saudia Arabia soon have the world’s only officially gender-segregated airline?(UPDATE – The short answer to this is no, apparently. See here.)
Earlier this year, following a number of incidents where ultra-Orthodox Jews refused to sit next to passengers of the opposite sex on N.Y.-Israel flights (the most recent reported on was in December), I looked into what happens on carriers in Saudi Arabia, where strict Islamic law on gender separation applies in many public spaces.
What I discovered was that, much like the Haredi passengers flying between the U.S. and Israel, Saudi passengers often prefer not to sit next to members of the opposite sex, and ask the flight crew to switch seats, usually leading to flight delays.
According to reports on Wednesday, however, national carrier Saudia is planning to segregate between the sexes on flights. A representative of the airline told Saudi daily Ajel it was making the move after complaints from customers who didn’t want their wives or other female relatives sitting next to men, the reports said.
“There are solutions to this problem…we will soon enforce rules that will satisfy all passengers,” the airline’s assistant marketing manager Abdul Rahman Al Fahd told Ajel, according to the reports. “He did not elaborate, ” according to the report, but the newspaper also said Saudia would instruct staff working at airports around the kingdom to make sure males and females are seated separately unless they are closely related.
This would make Saudia the only airline, to the best of my knowledge, to enact such a policy. Airlines that deal with this issue often, like El Al does with its ultra-Orthodox client base, opt for a case-by-case basis/we don’t have a policy approach.
Saudia “operates a fleet of over 139 jets to 78 domestic and international destinations in the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Far East, Europe and the United States of America, carrying over 21 million passengers a year,” according to the Flying Blue website.
If this reported ban does take place, would it apply only on internal flights, or to international routes, too? If it applied to international destinations, it would break the law of at least one of Saudia’s destination countries: the U.S.
Earlier this year, New York Conservative rabbi, activist and attorney Iris Richman urged customers unhappy with how airlines deal with the ultra-Orthodox seat-switching issue to use U.S. federal law to pressure carriers.
As I reported in Haaretz, Richman posted a callout on Facebook quoting “49 U.S. Code § 40127 – Prohibitions on discrimination a) Persons in Air Transportation.” According to this directive, she wrote, “An air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry.”
I am very interested to hear from anyone who knows more on the reported Saudia ban. Is this on the cards anytime soon? Will it affect both domestic and international flights? If you have information, let me know in the comments.
Update (Jan 2, 2015)
The Mail Online has a little more detail on this reported Saudia ban in an article published today. According to this report, customers recently complained “when male passengers claimed a flight attendant was being too ‘flirty’.”
And here’s a bit more from the Mail how Saudia caters to religious customers:
The carrier’s policies are already in tune to the strict Islamic practices of Saudi Arabia: no alcoholic beverages or pork dishes are served onboard, a prayer of verse from the Quran is read before take off, and many international flights have a designated men’s prayer area.
In addition, Saudia does not employ Saudi women as cabin crew, opting to recruit women from other countries such as Pakistan, the Philippines, Albania and Bosnia instead.
But moves are being made to employ females on the ground in November, the airline opened its fourth women’s section staffed by entirely by females at its office in the Murooj district of Saudi capital, Riyadh.