Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
One Airline's Harassment Fix: No Middle Seats for Women
In a country where women travelers face myriad dangers, one Indian airline has an idea: chivalry, and no middle seats.
With its Woman Flyer service, Vistara has begun offering to help women flying solo with their bags, escort them to and from their ground transportation, and give them preferred window and aisle seats on their flights—no middles. The New Delhi-based airline says between 75 and 100 women use the complimentary service each day. It is believed to be the first airline to offer such a service.
Sanjiv Kapoor, Vistara’s chief strategy and commercial officer, said the airline began offering it after noticing women seeking help after their planes had landed. “Our staff is equipped to help women travelling alone with the booking of airport-authorized taxis, as well as escort them to the airport taxi stand upon their request,” Kapoor said via email. “This service is a sincere effort to ensure peace of mind of our women customers.”
India is forecast to become the world’s sixth-largest business travel market by 2019, according to the Global Business Travel Association, but it’s gained an international reputation for being unsafe for women—particularly since the brutal 2012 gang rape, torture, and murder of a medical student attacked on a public bus in New Delhi.
In its notices to Americans about traveling to India, the U.S. State Department is blunt on the danger of sexual assault: “U.S. citizens, particularly women, are cautioned not to travel alone in India.” Australia and the United Kingdom offer similar, slightly more circumscribed warnings for women to avoid traveling alone on Indian public transit. In sexual assault cases in India, “successful prosecutions are rare,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises. Street harassment, controversially known as “Eve teasing,” is common.
The problems for India’s tourism flow directly from cultural issues around gender inequality in Indian society, said Marta Turnbull, editor of the International Women’s Travel Center, a resource site that compiles a list of the 10 most dangerous countries for women travelers using a variety of government travel warnings, United Nations data, and other sources. India is fifth on that list, which also includes Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
“We did find there is a correlation between what happens to local women and women travelers,” said Turnbull, who lives in Boulder, Colo. “There are a lot of activists who are taking it on as an issue. We’re optimistic that things will get better, but it will take a while—a long time.”
In efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment on public transit, officials from Calcutta to Mexico City to Leipzig, Germany, have tried offering separate train cars and buses reserved for women and children. Mexico City, where surveys have found that as many as 90 percent of women riders don’t feel safe, went so far as to install a seat on the subway molded with a male torso, and penis, to call attention to the problem.
While women-only transportation zones have shown some success and proven popular among some passengers, they’ve also been criticized for implying that women must be segregated in order not to be harassed. A study (PDF) Middlesex University researchers conducted in 2015 for the U.K. Department for Transport when it was exploring such ideas found they would mark “a retrograde step” in countries like the U.K. where gender equality was the norm. “Although women-only transport may be an effective means of reducing unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport in some countries, they are essentially ‘short-term fixes’ and reinforce a message that women must be contained and segregated in order to protect them,” it found.
Vistara, meanwhile, hopes to extend its new service for women to international flights once it expands outside of India. In May, Bloomberg News reported that the airline, which flies an all-Airbus A320 domestic fleet, was seeking to recruit pilots trained on Boeing Co. aircraft—a signal the carrier is considering leasing or buying Boeing jets for longer-haul routes outside the country. (Indian conglomerate Tata Sons Ltd. owns 51 percent of Vistara, which began flying in January 2015; Singapore Airlines Ltd. controls the rest.)
Two rival airlines, IndiGo and Jet Airways India Ltd., did not reply to messages seeking comment about Vistara’s new service for women, which began in March.