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Should male passengers be allowed to sit next to unaccompanied children?

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
updated 1:57 PM EDT, Wed August 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Man said he was asked to trade seats with a woman
  • He had been sitting next to unaccompanied children on flight
  • Australian airline said it is reviewing the rule
  • No major U.S. carriers have such a policy

Washington (CNN) -- An Australian airline's policy prohibiting male passengers from sitting next to kids traveling alone has fueled a social media firestorm and caused the company to review the rule.

"I am an emergency service worker when I'm off that plane, but as soon as I boarded it I was a presumed pedophile," firefighter Johnny McGirr told CNN Australian affiliate Network Ten.

While on a Virgin Australia flight earlier this year, he was seated next to two young boys traveling alone until he says a flight attendant asked him to trade seats with a woman.

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"It was interesting, like I had done something wrong. Really embarrassed," said McGirr. He was on a flight from Brisbane to his home in Sydney.

Virgin Australia said its long-standing policy, initially based on customer feedback, allowed for unaccompanied children to sit next to women or an empty seat.

"In light of recent feedback, we're now reviewing this policy," it said on its blog. "Our intention is certainly not to discriminate in any way."

In the United States, no major airline prohibits men from sitting next to unaccompanied minors.

"Airlines are acting as custodians of unaccompanied minors, and therefore have the ability to move them to a different seat if they believe that is in their best interest," a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman told CNN. "However, DOT has statutes prohibiting airlines from having discriminatory seating policies, including on the basis of gender or age. ... Therefore, airlines cannot have policies forcing a man to move if seated next to an unaccompanied minor, but they can, if they choose, have policies requiring an unaccompanied minor to be moved if he/she is originally seated next to an adult male."

Airlines CNN contacted said they take other steps to ensure the safety of children traveling alone.

On United Airlines "there is no specific seating policy," airline spokesman Joe Micucci told CNN. "That said, United has an overlapping security approach designed to ensure the safety and security of unaccompanied minors."

On Southwest Airlines, which does not have assigned seats, unaccompanied minors are seated near the front of the cabin, according to Whitney Eichinger, Southwest Airlines spokeswoman. "We do not restrict who sits next to an unaccompanied minor, but our flight attendants do check on them frequently in flight."

"We defer to the expertise of our trained gate agents and crew members who are tasked with ensuring the safety and security of all of passengers." US Airways spokesman Andrew Christie Jr. told CNN. "We also intentionally do not announce the boarding of unaccompanied minors so as not to draw unwanted attention to children traveling alone."

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British Airways updated its unaccompanied minor seating policy in 2010 after a lawsuit accusing the airline of discriminating against men.

"We have a specific seating department that follows guidelines to ensure that we place an unaccompanied minor in an appropriate seat, spokeswoman Caroline Titmuss said. "On some services, this will be in a specially created unaccompanied minors zone within a short distance of the cabin crew in the galley."

Virgin Australia's policy to prevent men from sitting next to the unaccompanied minors has supporters, including John Shehan of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States.

"We're trying to prevent child victimization," he said. "We know the overwhelming majority of sex offenders are male, so by removing that situation you're lowering the risk."

Australian airline Qantas also has come under fire for a similar policy prohibiting men from sitting next to unaccompanied minors. The airline declined to comment.

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