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Discretion or discrimination? Toddlers, toilets and temperamental travellers

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Thursday, 8 September 2011

After take-off, a woman on a flight from Moscow to London removes fellow passengers glasses, dispenses with vital items of her own attire, and engages in erotic dancing in the aisle. Crew abort the flight, returning to Domodedovo airport where the woman, from the Russian region of Tartarstan, is taken into custody for a medical check.

Gerard Depardieu’s flight from Paris to Dublin does not eventuate – at least, not with him on it. Drastic action is taken when he is found to have urinated in the aisle after pleading with flight attendants that his bladder is bursting and he ‘must go’. Together with two travelling companions, Depardieu is removed from the aircraft and forced to rebook, with his confreres, on another plane. 

Malaysian Airlines introduces a policy banning infants from flying in first class on Boeing 747-400 jets. Reported to be extending the ban to the six A380s scheduled for inclusion in the airline’s fleet from June 2012, the company says the policy is aimed at placating passengers complaining that children’s crying disrupts their comfort.


Does the handling of these matters illustrate a concern on the part of airlines for the comfort of their passengers or is it evidence of discriminatory policies and an inability on the part of airlines to train staff and provide appropriate facilities?

Erotic dancing may be frequently sought at clubs by corporations, law and accountancy firms, for corporate ‘entertainment’ and employee ‘bonding’. Nevertheless, its unsolicited appearance on aeroplane flights may not be the wish, nor to the enjoyment, of all travellers. Hence, the removal of the Tartarstan woman from the Moscow-London flight is understandable, although drunken footballers have been tolerated on some flights by some airline companies, so that these revellers have, at least, arrived at their chosen destination – despite the discomfort of others.

However, the ‘no babies’ policy and handling of an urgent need to urinate do not fall into the same category. Actionable discrimination is evident.

If babies cause discomfort in first class, then they will do so in whichever class they travel. Rather than ban babies or ignore the ‘comfort’ needs of passengers travelling coach or economy, the solution is to work harder to ensure that babies, their parent/s and passengers in all classes travel with equanimity.

The notion, in any event, that babies inevitably cause discomfort to travellers is nonsense. It is a blanket determination that discriminates on grounds of age (the babies themselves), family responsibilities (the parent/s) and association (the parent/s or other parties accompanying the infant).

This problem arose in a celebrated Melbourne case where parents took their newborn to an upmarket South Yarra restaurant. There, the parents said that had the baby cried they would have removed themselves to the parking lot where the mother would have breastfed the child. That discrimination was established here was clear. Not only did the parents have a solution to baby-cries, the baby hadn’t made a murmur before the order to ‘leave’, and the reality is that not all infants burst into tears in restaurants or elsewhere – including aircraft.


That is why ‘indirect’ discrimination – better named ‘”equal” treatment’ discrimination exists in law: to cover the case where a determination is made that ‘everyone’ in a particular group or of a particular status should be subject to a disadvantage that is not applied to those outside the group or of a different status.

In the Malaysian Airlines case, the parents’ solution proffered to the restaurant insofar as exit to the car parked outside is no answer. But the breastfeeding option – along with bottle or dummy – clearly applies to in-flight crying. And in the restaurant case, there was no need for mother and baby’s removal: breastfeeding is unobjectionable in any place, including a restaurant, ‘upmarket’ or not.

Still, that babies cry on aircraft despite the ready application of teat, dummy or breast does not prevent the sound of cries in the first instance. And few would deny that a baby’s expressions of distress or discomfort are themselves discomforting to others. Yet the most discomfort is surely caused to the parent/s, who are observed, inevitably, doing everything they can to calm their baby’s tears.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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