UPDATE: A public backlash has prompted Virgin Australia to announce it will review its policy barring men from sitting beside unaccompanied children on flights.
The company was today widely criticised after a Sydney fireman reported his experience of being asked to swap seats because he was sat beside two unaccompanied boys.
After this morning defending its policy, the airline this afternoon announced via Twitter it was reviewing its stance.
"We understand the concerns raised around our policy for children travelling alone, a long-standing policy initially based on customer feedback," @VirginAustralia said.
"In light of recent feedback, we're now reviewing this policy. Our intention is certainly not to discriminate in any way."
It strips away all the good that any male does regardless of his standing in society, his profession or his moral attitudes
A Virgin spokeswoman said the policy was shared by Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand.
Earlier today Fairfax Media reported the story of Johnny McGirr, 33, who said he was flying home from Brisbane in April when he took his seat next to two boys he estimated to be aged between eight and 10.
He was assigned the window seat but sat in the aisle seat so the two boys could look out the window.
However, a flight attendant approached him just as passengers were asked to put on their seatbelts, asking him to move.
Mr McGirr said when he asked why, he was told, "Well you can't sit next to two unaccompanied minors."
"She said it was the policy and I said, 'Well, that's pretty sexist and discriminatory. You can't just say because I'm a man I can't sit there,' and she just apologised and said that was the policy.
"By this stage everyone around me had started looking."
Mr McGirr said the attendant then asked a fellow female passenger, "Can you please sit in this seat because he is not allowed to sit next to minors."
"After that I got really embarrassed because she didn't even explain. I just got up and shook my head a little, trying to get some dignity out of the situation," he said.
"And that was it. I pretty much sat through the flight getting angrier."
Mr McGirr pointed out that he works as a fireman in Newtown in Sydney and was trusted in his job to look out for the welfare of children.
"[The attitude of the airline] is 'we respect you but as soon as you board a Virgin airline you are a potential paedophile', and that strips away all the good that any male does regardless of his standing in society, his profession or his moral attitudes," he said.
A spokeswoman for Virgin Australia this morning confirmed the policy and said while the airline did not want to offend male passengers, its priority was the safety of children.
"In our experience, most guests thoroughly understand that the welfare of the child is our priority," she said.
The spokeswoman said staff usually tried to keep the seat empty but, when that was not possible, a woman was seated next to the child.
"Virgin Australia takes the safety of all guests very seriously and, in the case of unaccompanied minors, we take additional steps to ensure their flight is safe and trouble free in every respect."
Mr McGirr, who wrote to Virgin to complain, said the policy was flawed.
"[It's] blatant discrimination that just because I'm a male I can't sit there," he said.
"They apologised that it happened on the flight and said it shouldn't have happened then but my issue is not with the mistakes made there; my issue is with the policy in general.
"The majority of sexual assaults are [also] committed by men. Does that mean that we can't sit next to women? Should we just have a seat by ourselves and that way women and children will be protected?"
Mr McGirr said he understood the children were vulnerable when not with an adult but said that fears about crimes committed by a small minority of people should not rule society.
Mr McGirr said Virgin should either allocate a chaperone for children to sit with them for the entire flight, have staff do regular checks on the children to see if they were all right or ask parents to purchase the seat that is vacant so it is always left empty.
Among other Australian airlines, budget carriers Jetstar and Tiger Airways do not accept unaccompanied minors on their flights, though the two airlines have different definitions of what constitutes a minor.
Qantas, which does allow unaccompanied minors over the age of five to travel on its flights, has not returned calls requesting information on its policy on seating male passengers next to unaccompanied children.
Criticism of the airline swelled online today, with the story attracting more than 700 comments across Fairfax Media news sites by 4pm.
More than 44,000 readers nationwide responded to an online poll asking whether the airline’s policy was fair, with 87 per cent agreeing the rule was ‘‘sexist and suggests all men are potential pedophiles’’.
Twitter users were quick to voice their poor opinion of the policy under the hashtag #VirginDiscrimination, while Facebook users also responded with criticism.
One person wrote on Virgin Australia's Facebook page: ‘‘As a male school teacher, it saddens me that men are turned away from being a positive role model for children, because people have the attitude ‘male = potential molester’.’’
Another Facebook user wrote the policy was ‘‘disgracefully discriminatory’’, while another user said it was a ‘‘stupid load of nonsense’’ that insulted half the country’s population.
However, some on Facebook jumped to the airline’s defence, with one mother saying she appreciated the policy.
‘‘I do recall once at check-in the seats being changed around so that my children were not seated beside a man. But it was done very discretely [sic] and you know what, as a mum I was comfortable with the decision,’’ she wrote.
While Virgin Australia was adamant that it was not alone in implementing such a policy, Qantas has not responded to repeated attempts to clarify its position from Fairfax Media today.
However, the BBC reported Qantas and Air New Zealand had a similar policy in 2005, after a businessman successfully sued British Airways on the grounds of sex discrimination after he was moved away from an unaccompanied child on a flight.
- with Marissa Calligeros