El Al airplane
El Al airplanePhoto: Moshe Shai / Flash90

El Al, Israel’s national airline, has adopted a new policy regarding the handling of male passengers who refuse to sit next to women, following criticism of a series of incidents on a recent flight.

Last Thursday night, four male passengers, all members of the haredi community, refused to take seats assigned to them after they discovered that they had been seated next to female passengers.

Claiming that their religious beliefs required that they be seated away from female passengers, the four men demanded that special accommodations be made in their case.

Despite orders by one of the flight attendants that the four men take their assigned seats, the flight was ultimately delayed by more than an hour, with the dispute only being resolved after several women agreed to change seats.

The incident drew heavy criticism, including from Barak Eilam, the CEO of NICE Systems, an analytics software company.

In a social media post, Eilam vowed to cut any and all business ties with El Al and to boycott the airline until the airline banned “actions discriminating [against] women”.

“At NICE we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion. NICE will not fly EL Al Israel Airlines until they change their practice and actions discriminating women.”

In response to Eilam’s post, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin criticized the Nice Systems chief’s comments, and emphasized that El Al had adopted clear guidelines in the way wake of last week’s incident to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

“The post by the NICE CEO was made without a thorough check of the facts, and I explained that to him in a conversation,” Usishkin said, according to a report by Channel 10.

“EL Al’s employees who handled the incident did so with the necessary sensitivity. Everyone who flies with the national airline feels the values the company was founded on: an egalitarian company which does not discriminate based on religion, race, or sex.”

Usishkin added that he had released a new directive, requiring that in the future, passengers who refuse their assigned seats will be immediately removed from the flight.

“For the sake of clarity, today I ordered that the regulations be clarified on this matter, and that in the future, any passenger who refuses to sit next to another passenger will be immediately removed from the flight.”

One year ago, an Israeli court ruled that El Al cannot ask women to move seats to accommodate a man who does not want to sit next to a woman. Renee Rabinowitz, 83, a retired lawyer who made aliyah more than a decade ago and had been visiting family in the United States, agreed to switch her seat in business class on a December 2015 flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Israel. A flight attendant offered Rabinowitz a better seat closer to first class.

The judge in the case ruled the airline must declare it forbidden for a crew member to ask a passenger to change seats at the request of another passenger based on gender. El Al agreed to tell its cabin staff in writing about the prohibition and provide training on how to deal with such situations.