Anthony Grant

Watch out for haredim on planes

Being principally a travel writer, I greet this bit of a news about an American woman suing El Al Israel Airlines for allegedly switching her seat on a flight from the US with some consternation.

If the passenger’s allegations prove to be true, it will certainly be illuminating. I have flown El Al frequently in the past, not out of allegiance to either the brand or to Israel — the company is privately owned, after all — but for convenience. And there has not been one long-haul flight during which at various points in the flight portions of the aisles and space close the lavatories and even the emergency exits have not been effectively blocked by one or more passengers, presumably ultra-Orthodox, standing up and praying.

Most disturbingly, this has often occurred during moments of what any aviation authority would characterize as moderate to heavy turbulence.  Particularly during such moments, any passenger standing in the aisle of a crowded airplane poses a safety risk not only to himself but to seated passengers. I have witnessed passengers who proceed to move cumbersome objects into and out of the overhead bins during periods of turbulence, when they should remain seated with their seatbelts fastened. One one memorable flight, I was seated in an exit row, and as the plane shook with moderate to heavy turbulence an Orthodox man stood facing the exit, swaying, praying, disrespecting my limited personal space and jeopardizing on-board safety. When a flight attendant unprompted by me requested that he take his site, he quietly but firmly refused to comply.

Such behavior would never be tolerated aboard American aircraft, particularly in the post-9/11 era of heightened aviation security. So why should it be permitted on an El Al flight? Hardly a secret: my flight attendant friend tells me it’s simply because the Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox are good customers, and need to be kept happy accordingly.

But that reminds me a bit of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. You don’t keep certain customers satisfied at the expense of other customers’ satisfaction, and you do not keep certain customers satisfied at the expense of every customer’s safety.

I admire and respect El Al, and as a travel industry “insider” I know firsthand that everyone in that or any airline company has got a tough job to do. El Al does its job exceedingly well. I hope that American woman’s allegations prove to be untrue. But the very fact that the issue has been raised would appear to indicate that there is, at a minimum, an issue at hand that needs to be addressed.

Because at 30,000 feet neither revenue or political correctness counts very much. But safety does.