Dutch Airline Loses Bias Case Brought by Woman Forced to Change Seats

A KLM passenger plane approaches for landing at the Lisbon airport in August 2019. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

UTRECHT, Netherlands (CN) — Dutch airline KLM discriminated against a woman when it asked her to change seats to accommodate an Orthodox Jewish man, a human rights watchdog in the Netherlands has ruled. 

The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights found Friday that the Dutch flag carrier should not have asked the woman to give up her seat after the Orthodox Jewish man refused to sit next to her on a flight from New York to Amsterdam. 

“KLM discriminated against the couple on the grounds of sex by not sufficiently ensuring a discrimination-free environment for them on the flight from New York to Amsterdam,” the institute wrote in its decision. 

The woman, who was not named in case documents, is the wife of Ronald van Raak, a member of the Dutch Parliament. Van Raak wrote a column about the experience in May 2019, when he and his wife were flying home from New York and a KLM flight attendant asked the couple to move to other seats to avoid delaying the flight. 

Rather than reseat the man, airline staff requested that the couple move. Some Orthodox Jewish men believe it is against their religion to sit next to a woman who is not their wife.

“If the staff had had to find a place for the Orthodox Jewish man, it would have taken more time. After all, he did not want to sit next to a woman and on average half of the passengers are women,” the rights institute wrote in its decision.  

The couple was eventually forced to move and filed a complaint with the Institute for Human Rights, which protects human rights in the Netherlands and adjudicates human rights complaints. The ruling is not binding but can be used as a basis for formal legal proceedings.

Friday’s ruling noted that if an airline wishes to relocate a passenger, it must do so with the passenger’s full cooperation and the right to religious freedom doesn’t trump rules against sex discrimination. 

When they returned to the Netherlands, the couple filed a complaint with KLM but was unhappy with the response.

After the incident, KLM said in a statement: “In a situation on board, the crew makes an effort to solve that situation in a good way and, above all, to prevent escalation. In doing so, considerations are made. This is also the case here.” 

The airline continued to defend itself over several months of discussion. Van Raak was accidentally included in an email from the director of KLM Netherlands, Harm Kreulen, who called van Raak’s response “worthless.” 

Van Raak wrote in a statement Friday that he is happy with the outcome.

“It is in the public interest that every woman should be able to count on not being discriminated against on a KLM flight,” he said.

KLM was not immediately available for comment on the decision. 

The ruling also recommended that airline staff undergo training to ensure that they understand forcing a passenger to move under these circumstances constitutes discrimination. 

Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women has repeatedly been an issue for airlines. An 82-year-old Holocaust survivor won a landmark ruling in Israel against that country’s national carrier, El Al, after she was forced to switch seats in 2017. El Al changed its policy in response.

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