At long last, the spotlight is being cast on in-flight sexual assault and harassment – A crime that travellers seem oblivious to and airlines apparently ignore. In the last few weeks, the Association of Flight Attendants released a shocking report which showed 68% of flight attendants had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their careers and nearly one in five had been physically assaulted by passengers in the last 12-months alone.
But what about passengers? In response to the AFA campaign, U.S. Democratic Representative for Oregon, Peter DeFazio has introduced a “long overdue” new Bill which would help combat sexual assault and harassment at 38,000 feet. Measures include forcing airlines to train their flight attendants on how to deal with sexual assault allegations and making carriers release figures of how many such assaults are taking place on their planes every year.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which is responsible for investigating sexual assaults that take place onboard planes within or en route to the United States says this type of crime is on the rise. The agency recorded a near 100% increase in reported cases between 2014 and 2017 – although that might only be the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s safe to say that many incidents occur that are not reported,” explains FBI Special Agent David Gates, based at Los Angeles International Airport.
Internationally, however, the situation is even more complicated. Different countries have varying ways of recording such allegations and there have been many reports of authorities refusing to take victims seriously – in some cases, the survivor has been told by law enforcement that they should feel “flattered” by “flirtatious” behaviour.
While in-flight sexual assault can affect anyone, the vast majority of cases are perpetrated by men against lone female travellers – often trapped in a middle or window seat within the Economy cabin. In many cases, the victim falls asleep in a darkened cabin only to wake to find the suspect groping their breasts or crotch – either on top or under their clothing.
It’s not uncommon for victims to be left frozen in fear. Trapped in their seat with the attack continuing as they figure out a way to escape and alert a flight attendant. What’s worse is that many victims never believed this could ever happen to them on a plane.
“Unfortunately, people don’t think things like this happen on aeroplanes,” says the FBI’s Caryn Highley, a special agent in the agency’s Seattle Division.
“There is a perception on an aeroplane that you’re in a bubble of safety.” Sadly, that’s a perception that isn’t necessarily true.
How to stop an attack
So while there’s absolutely no excuse for such behaviour, the FBI does have some suggestions to help protect potential victims. Gates says victims should “trust their gut”, saying that many offenders will initially rub up against a victim to test their reaction – if they then think they can get away with it, they’ll continue their assault. Don’t be afraid to ask to be reseated.
The FBI also warns against mixing alcohol and sleeping tablets – even if you’re keen to get some sleep on that redeye. They say that only increases your risk of becoming a victim.
And what about if your seatmate wants to have the armrest up? According to the FBI, no matter how nice they seem, keep that armrest down.
If, however, an attack does happen, report it immediately – find a flight attendant and tell them exactly what happened. Ask them to confirm the identity of the attacker and get them to call ahead for law enforcement to meet the aircraft on arrival. Insist on being reseated and don’t let embarrassment allow flight attendants to convince you otherwise.
What happens if you report an incident after the plane has landed?
“It doesn’t matter when you report an in-flight sexual assault—we take it seriously, and we will pursue it,” Gates explains, although “after the fact, these cases are much more difficult to prove,” he explains.
Earlier this week, Congresswomen Lois Frankel (D-FL-21) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) sent a letter to 30 U.S. airline executives asking them to take immediate action on sexual harassment within the aviation industry.
“We applaud Spirit, United, and Alaska Airlines for denouncing sexual harassment and supporting flight attendants and taking a stand against sexual harassment in the workplace,” the Congressmen wrote.
“We trust all airlines are addressing this issue and will come forward with policies to establish zero tolerance policies throughout the industry.”