Christine Flynn, 31, said she was buckled in and waiting for Porter Airlines Flight 121 from Newark, N.J. to Toronto to take off early on Monday morning when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man approached.
"He came down the aisle, he didn't actually look at me ... or make eye contact. He turned to the gentleman across the aisle and said, 'Change.'"
Flynn said she was confused at first, wondering why the man was speaking to the other passenger and gesturing towards her. The man didn't speak to her directly, but Flynn said it's clear to her that he did not want to sit next to her because she's a woman.
Flynn said she might have been willing to accommodate the man had he spoken to her directly and politely asked her to switch seats. She admits language may have been a factor— saying his English "wasn't terrific — but said his refusal to even make eye contact was offensive.
"He could have made a plan, he could have put in a request," said Flynn in an interview Wednesday on CBC Radio's Metro Morning. "When someone doesn't look at you, and when someone doesn't acknowledge you as person because of your gender, you're a lot less willing to be accommodating.
"Leaving it to the last minute and expecting me to move is appalling. "He's expecting me to fall in to that archetypical feminine role and acquiesce."
'This is ridiculous'
When the first passenger refused to switch seats, the man then asked another passenger in the row behind to switch with her, she said.
Finally, she said, a flight attendant approached and asked if there was a problem.
"I said, 'This man is refusing to sit next to me because I am a woman.' At that point, another man behind ... offered to switch with me and the airline attendant said, 'Would you be willing to move? and I said, 'Absolutely not. This is ridiculous,'" she said. "I was without words."
Eventually the man was seated next to another male passenger and the flight departed.
Religion 'rarely' a factor
Flynn says she's frustrated she was asked to move and upset others on the flight were willing to help the man.
"I have a problem with that. He [the flight attendant] probably, maybe, didn't realize that asking a woman to move because the fact she had a uterus made the man next to her uncomfortable ... I don't think he even would have put it together that that's kind of insulting and maybe even discriminatory," she said.
"If someone had refused to sit next to me because I was gay and maybe they were some kind of old-school religion that doesn't like gay people no one would have switched with him. It would have been off the table," she said.
Porter Airlines spokesman Brad Cicero confirmed that the situation occurred but said the flight attendant "did his best to manage the situation as efficiently and reasonably as possible in order to avoid an unnecessary delay."
Porter does its best to accommodate seating preferences, he said in an email Tuesday.
"Most often, this involves families wanting to sit near each other, or something as simple as a passenger preferring a window seat. Religious preferences are very rarely a factor."
He said because the flight was almost full, there were limited options to move anyone.
Other passengers asked to assist
"Only a few seats were available and no row was entirely unoccupied. The flight attendant politely asked Ms. Flynn if she would be able to change seats. She declined, so the flight attendant began asking other passengers if they would be willing to assist. Someone did agree to move and it was not perceived to be a particularly contentious situation by the flight attendant."
Flynn said she hopes to hear from the airline.
"I'd like an apology. There really should be a policy around this. If people are going to get on flights and demand that they sit next to someone of the same sex, there should be an area where they can go," Flynn said. "I should not have to move because someone has a problem with my uterus."
According to an April 9 article in the New York Times, conflicts between ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and female passengers on flights are becoming more common, with several flights from New York to Israel being delayed or disrupted over the past year.