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Our Selective Outrage Over Airplane Seat Change Requests

Last week, the Twitter world exploded as an in-flight romance was live tweeted at 35,000 feet on an Alaska Air flight from LaGuardia to Dallas. Over the course of the four-hour flight, we were treated to a play-by-play from two people who had switched seats in order to sit next to each other as they described a relationship budding in front of them, played out in over 50 tweets. The exchange went viral, as millions viewed and 900,000 people liked the Twitter thread, with the hashtags #PrettyPlaneGirl, #HunkyPlaneGuy and #CatchingFlightsAndFeelings trending for days. The entire story received international media attention with glowing features on Good Morning America, the Today Show, BBC World and numerous other outlets.

In contrast, only one week earlier, media attention was focused on a different airplane interaction — only this time, the reaction was outrage and condemnation. That interaction played out on El Al and other airlines, and it involved Hasidic men who requested seat changes to avoid sitting with women they weren’t related to. Their requests, based on religious grounds, were either rejected — causing flight delays — or permitted in order to avoid flight delays. In both scenarios, Hasidic men were roundly attacked in news articles, editorials and, of course, on social media. Pundits applauded El Al’s newly announced policy that anyone requesting an on-board seat change will be immediately removed from their flight.

Both of these stories begin the identical way, with someone asking another passenger on a flight if they wouldn’t mind switching seats. So why is the reaction to the two stories so very different? Is switching seats for love somehow more noble than switching seats for faith?

On nearly every flight I’ve ever flown on, I have witnessed people switching seats. Sometimes it’s for a window view, or for leg room on the aisle, or to sit with a friend, spouse or child if they were assigned separate seats. In most of these scenarios, the arrangements are made and the requests are simply accommodated by the passengers. It is only with Hasidic seat-switchers that we are asked to analyze the motivation for the request and judge whether it’s worthy of accommodation.

I am in no way suggesting that passengers should ever be forced out of an assigned seat, nor should any flight ever be delayed by an unruly passenger who refuses to be seated in their assigned seat. I am also not commenting on the interpretations of Jewish law which either permit or prohibit a female sitting between two males or a male sitting between two females. That debate should be left to Rabbinic Scholars and not to opinion writers in Jewish newspapers or on social media.

My only point is that deeply held religious beliefs deserve to be accommodated, no less than any other reason for a requested in-flight seat exchange. The two seat-moving scenarios each started in identical fashion, though for very different reasons. So why the double standard?

Let’s start the hashtag #CatchingFlightsAndKeepingFaith to show respect and accommodation, wherever possible.

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