At long last, the serious issue of in-flight sexual assaults is finally being openly talked about and debated. A series of high profile incidents that have been picked up by various media outlets are starting to shine a light on a vile type of crime that many airlines would like to pretend doesn’t exist.
CNN recently interviewed a victim of an in-flight sexual assault who was groped and harassed on a flight from Newark to Buffalo in the United States. Katie Campos described in detail what the perpetrator did, saying: “He grabbed my upper thigh, like in the crotch area, and he grabbed it pretty forcefully.”
But while Campos reported the incident to police, you might struggle to find her case recorded in official statistics. The FBI who are responsible for such crimes in the U.S. doesn’t actually record the number of sexual assaults that happen on an aircraft. Many other countries lack adequate reporting mechanisms and airlines refuse to share information about incidents that happen on their aircraft.
However, in 2015, the FBI did tell Slate magazine that they had around 40 open cases of in-flight sexual assault. We also know from London’s Metropolitan Police that its officers at Heathrow Airport investigated around 29 “sexual offences” in 2016/2017 – an 11% increase on the previous year.
Aeroplanes are safe places, aren’t they?
We like to think of aeroplanes as safe places – a controlled environment where everyone has been screened and scrutinised before being allowed to board. We put our faith in flight attendants who airlines tell us are there primarily for “our safety and security.” Surely if anything goes wrong, the flight attendants will know exactly what to do.
Not so says, Campos. She said that United Airlines flight attendants didn’t seem to take her allegation seriously. They only half-heartedly reacted when Campos refused to return to her seat. Stories of this kind are not uncommon – flight attendants either seem completely unprepared for this type of allegation, refuse to believe the allegation or lack training to appropriately respond.
At the start of the year, we reached out to over 50 international airlines asking them if they provided any training to their cabin crew to deal with in-flight sexual assaults. The vast majority of those airlines refused to provide data. Big name carriers such as Qantas, Emirates, British Airways, Lufthansa and American Airlines refused to take part in our survey.
Only five out of 50 airlines contacted responded to our survey
A handful of airlines did reply but many, including Finnair, focused on their standard training for dealing with “unruly passengers” noting that they had a “zero tolerance” attitude to unruly behaviour.
Southwest Airlines said its flight attendants were trained “to address passengers who display inappropriate behaviour”, saying their “number one priority is the safety and security of our customers and employees.”
Both Japan Airlines and Singapore Airways said they did provide training for dealing with in-flight sexual assaults. So too, does Canada’s Westjet who told us: “WestJet has policies, procedures and training in place for dealing with unruly passenger behaviour including sexual misconduct.”
Westjet’s spokesperson went on to say: “We are adamant that our guests and crew have the right to feel safe and not accept harassment in any form.”
Training is the exception, not the norm
But this type of training is the exception, not the norm. As a serving flight attendant, your writer spoke with his network of flight attendants at different airlines around the world. None of those contacted had ever received any training on how to deal with a sexual assault. Many said they would feel totally unprepared to deal with such an incident.
The question, though, is why aren’t more airlines facing up to this type of crime? Airline managers are all too aware that crime does happen onboard their flights – flight attendants are routinely trained to deal with “unruly behaviour” although the quality of training and equipment available to crew can vary greatly between airlines.
As the only available authority figure available to a victim of an in-flight sexual assault, passengers need to know they can confide in flight attendants and trust they will do the right thing. Flight attendants should assume the victim is telling the truth, not question whether their story has been fabricated. They should provide support, comfort and help secure evidence if necessary.
Flights attendants should assume victims are telling the truth
I’m not for one second suggesting flight attendants should suddenly become fully trained Detectives. There’s only so much cabin crew can do within the scope of their work but clearly, there’s currently room for improvement.
Some airlines are, however, trying to improve. After a case of sexual harassment onboard an Alaska Airlines flight where crew apparently failed the victim, the airline’s chief executive Brad Tilden has said he and his management team are working to improve the way it deals with similar cases in the future.
Alaska has approached the Association of Flight Attendants for support to address their training needs. The AFA recently called on airline chief executives to “clearly and forcefully denounce the past objectification of flight attendants.”
Some airlines are responding to calls for action
In an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post, the union said airlines should “pledge zero tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the airlines.”
The demand has already been met positively by United Airlines, whose CEO Oscar Munoz has already publicly gone on record to say his airline has a zero-tolerance approach to allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
Hopefully, more airlines will now realise that this isn’t an issue they can any longer ignore. In the same way, airlines have reacted to issues such as human trafficking, they should also implement training programmes to prepare staff to deal with allegations of sexual assault.