Air India is the first airline in the world to introduce women-only seats. Photo by Zoshua Colah

Air India is the first airline in the world to reserve seats for women passengers after a groping incident happened during a recent flight.

Effective from 18 January 2017, six seats (two rows) in the economy section of all domestic flights will be reserved for women passengers travelling solo. The Times of India also reported that women can request for the seats without any extra charges.

The Indian national carrier implemented this move to ensure the safety of its women passengers. “We feel, as national carriers, it is our responsibility to enhance comfort levels to female passengers. There are a lot of female passengers who travel alone with us and we will be blocking a few seats for them,” Meenakshi Malik, Air India General Manager – Revenue Management, was quoted in an exclusive to The Hindu.

Although it is common for public transportation in India such as buses, trains, and rickshaws to have a certain number of seats allocated for women commuters only, women-only rows on flights is an unprecedented move for the airline industry worldwide.

The controversial move has been widely criticised by both men and women alike.

[Read also: Would You Feel Safe In India’s Women-Only Auto Rickshaws?]

Molested onboard 

Air India introduced the new seating arrangement as a response to a groping incident that took place on a flight from Mumbai to Newark on 21 December 2016.

During the flight, a business class passenger requested to change his seat to a vacant one in the economy section next to a female passenger. He made the request under the pretext of wanting to work with a colleague seated in the same section.

When the female passenger was asleep, the 40-year-old man put his hand under her shirt and touched her breasts. Four hours into the flight, the woman was awakened by the inappropriate touch that left her crying hysterically. Upon arriving in the United States, the victim and the Air India crew lodged a complaint against the alleged molester. The alleged was handed over to the police.

According to the Times of India, the alleged later wrote a 6-page apology letter pleading for forgiveness and requesting the victim to withdraw her complaint as it would affect his immigration status in America and the future of his family. “…Please do not let a moment’s stupidity on my part kill my children’s future. I beg of you. I know I should have thought of these things before… I acknowledge I was stupid. Please do not let everyone suffer because of me,” the letter read.

Two weeks before the groping incident, a female flight attendant was molested by a male passenger onboard an Air India flight from Delhi to Oman as reported in the Telegraph UK.

Safety or sexist?

The move has sparked controversy with Indians questioning whether women-only seats is the solution to ensuring women’s safety.

Former Air India Executive Director describes the move as a “misplaced priority” in an interview with The Hindu. “To my knowledge, this (women-only airplane seats) happens nowhere else in the world. Planes are not unsafe for women passengers. In case of unruly behavior, the airline crew are authorized to take action according to the law.”
Calling the move a prelude to “gender discrimination”, the National President of Air Passengers Association of India says “it is an impractical move… the airline should not go ahead with this plan.”

Many Air India frequent flyers have also chimed in on Twitter claiming that the need for cleaner airlines is more important than having women-only seat reservations. Some even called the move “sexist” and added that women are capable of taking care of themselves without the need for such outrageous reservations.

Although having women-only rows will give solo women flyers a little peace of mind, it is a move that merely covers the crux of the issue with a blanket. The move is not a one-stop solution for in-flight misbehaviour. What really needs to change is the attitude of people towards women who choose to travel solo and giving them their right to comfort and space.

Get all the latest travel stories from Zafigo. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.