BA seat policy made man 'feel like a child molester'

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News

Image caption,
Mirko Fischer said he worried what message was being sent to children

Businessman Mirko Fischer never imagined he would become embroiled in a court battle with British Airways over the way the airline treats its male customers.

But, he says, the last time he flew with BA he was treated as if he was a potential "child molester" - all because he unwittingly sat next to a boy who was travelling alone.

Mr Fischer was so angry that he filed a claim at Slough County Court, arguing that the airline's long-standing policy of forbidding men from sitting next to unaccompanied children not only cast the whole male gender in an unsavoury light, but was essentially sex discrimination.

BA is understood to have admitted sex discrimination in Mr Fischer's case and agreed to pay £2,161 in costs and £750 in damages.

The company denied the policy was discriminatory although a spokesman told the BBC it was now under review.

On 20 April 2009, Mr Fischer, 35, was on a BA flight from London to Luxembourg when his pregnant wife Stefanie asked him to swap seats so she could sit next to the window. He took her middle seat instead.

Mrs Fischer had been sitting next to an unaccompanied minor - an airline term for children travelling alone. But cabin crew, mistakenly believing Mr Fischer was travelling alone, told the couple they had to return to their original seats.

Mr Fischer, of Luxembourg City, said: "A steward came over to me just before take-off and asked me to change seats with my wife again.

"When I asked him why, he pointed to the youngster and told me about the policy and said the plane could not take off unless I moved."

As people on the plane began to look over at the disturbance, Mr Fischer felt he had no option but to return to his original seat.

He said: "There were no raised voices but we were in a public place and there were obviously people around us wondering what was happening."


The rest of the journey was uncomfortable and awkward for the couple.

He said: "I felt humiliated and outraged. They accuse you of being some kind of child molester just because you are sitting next to someone.

"It is no different from stopping men from being allowed to sit next to boys in a public place but where will this stop? Are supermarkets next?

"Children need to interact with both men and women."

Mr Fischer, a hedge fund manager, said he was concerned about what the boy involved had thought of the matter, adding that he and his wife had not said a word to the child during their journey because they were so worried about what would happen if they did.

He wrote a letter of complaint to the airline and although the airline apologised, he felt it was not enough.

He said: "It is sex discrimination. I want this policy to be substantially changed as it is a matter of principle. Women are not treated like this."

This is not the first time the airline's seating policy has come under scrutiny.

In 2001 British Airways had to apologise to an unnamed executive after cabin crew forced him to move away from two unaccompanied children.

And Mayor of London Boris Johnson had a similar experience in 2006 despite sitting with his own children at the time.

Afterwards Mr Johnson wrote in the Telegraph: "How many paedophiles can there be?

"Are we really saying that any time an adult male finds himself sitting next to someone under 16, he must expect to be hustled from his seat before the suspicious eyes of the entire cabin?"

Image caption,
The BA policy has been in place for a number of years

In 2005 it emerged that Australian carrier Qantas and Air New Zealand had similar policies to British Airways after Mark Worsley from Auckland was forced to move from his seat away from two unaccompanied children.

A Qantas spokesperson said: "The policy reflects parents' concerns and the need to maximise the child's safety and well-being."

Another British airline, Virgin Atlantic, said it had no such policy in place while EasyJet said passengers sat where they wished.

Mr Fischer, whose daughter Sophia was born in August 2009, said he could understand why the policy existed as the company "was trying to cover" itself.

And although he said had "no hard feelings" towards British Airways, he did not feel it made the company's policy right.

Mr Fischer said he was disappointed BA limited its admission of sex discrimination to his case but that he believed his situation set a precedent and would help anyone else in a similar predicament.

A British Airways spokesman said its priority was taking care of the tens of thousands of children who travel on its flights every year.

He said the company was pleased to have settled the matter but the particulars of the case were difficult. He said the flight the couple had been on was extremely full and so it had been difficult to be flexible over seat choice.

Mr Fischer donated the damages pay out and £2,250 of his own money to the child protection charities Kidscape and Orphans in the Wild after learning of the decision.

Claude Knights, director of Kidscape, said BA had to have procedures in place to safeguard children but "a common-sense" approach was needed.

She said: "We don't want a world where children fear every adult."

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