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Why efforts to segregate passengers by sex probably won't fly

Airlines such as Saudia, Saudi Arabia's national carrier, and Israel's El Al may run afoul of U.S. laws by accommodating the demands of religious passengers opposed to sitting next to a member of the opposite sex who isn't a close relative.

"Airlines are public accommodations," said Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project in an interview. "Therefore, they must be open to everyone. They can't impose discriminatory policies based on religion or any other discriminatory basis."

Of course, carriers would rather avoid the issue entirely because of the cost and hassle of delaying a flight, which inevitably creates lots of unhappy passengers. And of course there are the public relations issues to consider. However, airlines like Saudia and El Al have to be mindful of the cultures in which they operate.

According to media reports, Saudia will tell its employees to keep men and women separated unless they are close relatives in response to request from devout Muslims. Saudi women already face many challenges in their daily lives -- they are not allowed to travel or work outside the home without the permission of a male relative. That's one of the reasons why Saudia doesn't employ Saudi women as flight attendants.

Some Orthodox Jews have raised similar concerns. Last year, a group of Orthodox Jewish men reportedly refused to take their seats on an El Al flight because they were next to women and spent 11 hours railing against their seat assignments. There was a similar problem in November on Delta Air Lines (DAL) between Tel Aviv and New York and on an Israel-bound flight last month, according to media reports.

A petition on Change.org that calls for the Israeli carrier to end "bullying, intimidation, and discrimination against women on your flights" has attracted 6,000 supporters.

"El Al does everything possible to accommodate the requests of all our passengers," writes Sheryl Stein, U.S.-based spokeswoman for El Al, in an email to MoneyWatch. She declined to elaborate further.

Efforts to reach Saudia were unsuccessful.

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