Jewish passengers allege racial, religious bias led to removal from JetBlue flight

An Orthodox rabbi has accused JetBlue Airways Corp. of discrimination for removing him from a flight after he asked to switch seats to avoid sitting next to a woman, which would violate his religious beliefs. Photo courtesy of JetBlue

May 23 (UPI) -- An Orthodox rabbi has accused JetBlue Airways Corp. of discrimination for removing him from a flight after he asked to switch seats to avoid sitting next to a woman, which would violate his religious beliefs.

A federal lawsuit alleges the pilot falsely said moving to another seat was a violation that would cause a weight imbalance on the plane, and told Rabbi Abraham Lunger he had to get off the aircraft.

His wife, Miriam Lunger, and Brucha Ungar, who was traveling with the couple, also were told to leave the plane, the suit says.

The three, who are observant Orthodox Jews and plaintiffs in the suit, say their removal from the plane was based on religious and racial discrimination. The suit also includes allegations of civil rights violations, harassment and retaliation.

The legal actions, filed Feb. 27 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages. In addition to JetBlue, a flight attendant listed as Jane Doe was named as a defendant. A pretrial conference is scheduled May 31.

In a motion to dismiss the suit filed Tuesday, JetBlue countered that the plaintiffs failed to allege any facts "to credibly infer, let alone establish, any discriminatory motive" by the airline.

A contract of carriage, which defines the legal responsibilities of the carrier and the user, allows JetBlue to refuse to transport any customers who refuse to comply with instructions given by uniformed flight crew, the motion says.

It also says a "passenger may not occupy a seat other than the seat(s) to which passenger was assigned," and that the Lungers elected not to pay for an advanced seat assignment.

"Instead, they attempted to switch seats with others in the final stage of the boarding process," the JetBlue motion says. "However they attempt to style their claims, the simple fact is that plaintiffs' conduct breached the express terms of the contract, which resulted in their removal from the flight."

Ungar had opted for a more expensive fare that entitled her to advanced seat selection and other perks, the motion says.

In accordance with religious beliefs, Abraham Lunger, who has a congregation in upstate New York, dresses in a black coat and black hat and has a full beard and payos, which are long sideburns that hang from the sides of his head, the suit says.

The women cover their hair with wigs, wear clothes that have long sleeves and cover their neck and legs.

The suit alleges that other passengers who were not dressed in Orthodox Jewish attire had switched seats, but were not kicked off the plane. But Miriam Lunger and Ungar were told to leave even though they had not been falsely accused of causing a weight imbalance.

New York City attorneys Evan Brustein and Maya Risman, who represent the plaintiffs, said anti-Semitism is becoming more prevalent.

Brustein said there was a "stark difference in the way JetBlue treated the Jewish people versus the non-Jewish people."

He added: "This incident isn't solely about the freedom to switch seats on an airplane with a willing/consenting passenger, but about JetBlue's handling of a Jewish man's request to do so."

Risman said multiple passengers on the flight spoke out about how the plaintiffs were being treated, and she hopes the case encourages others to also speak up when they see something they know is wrong.

The Lungers and Ungar had been scheduled to take the overnight JetBlue Flight 2050 from Palm Springs International Airport in California to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Dec. 31. The airline typically used an Airbus 320, with 140 seats, on that route.

Ungar was assigned her seat before arriving at the airport, and when the Lungers got there, the rabbi was assigned seat 18A by a ticket agent and his wife was assigned seat 21B.

As an observant Orthodox Jewish man, Lunger cannot sit next to a woman unless she is his wife or a blood relative, the suit says.

Miriam Lunger asked an agent before they boarded the flight if her husband could be seated next to her or not next to another woman and was told they could try to arrange with other passengers to change their seats, the suit alleges.

But when a woman came to sit in the seat next to Abraham Lunger and the rabbi got up and stood in the aisle, the flight attendant yelled at him to go back to his seat, according to the suit.

A man who was about the same weight as Lunger and sitting a few rows ahead of him on the same side of the aircraft overheard the switch request and offered to change seats. But the flight attendant attempted to prevent the switch and brought the pilot to the back of the plane, the suit alleges.

The pilot falsely told Lunger he could not switch because it was a violation and would cause a weight imbalance on the plane, the suit claims, adding that "At no point previously did JetBlue ask for weight information to assign the original seat arrangements."

The suit says the pilot told the three plaintiffs, "Sorry, you have to get off the plane. The crew members don't feel safe flying with you. The flight will not leave with you on the plane." Miriam Lunger tried to reason with the pilot, saying that "this is for religious purposes," but he would not change his mind.

The filing notes that "Another passenger on board who witnessed this anti-Semitic behavior tweeted 'this was resolved pretty easily (my boyfriend gladly switched seats once he realized what the need was) and everyone was seated and waiting. Then they were kicked off.'"

The Lungers and Ungar exited the plane and tried to get their suitcases but were told they could not, and JetBlue would not provide overnight accommodations, food or transportation, the suit says.

It added that when they arranged for a return flight the next day, the three were charged for a price change and a same-day change, and the airline claimed they never boarded their flight but rather missed the flight.