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Feds Issue Urgent Warning Over a ‘Disturbing’ Rise in Inflight Sexual Assaults With Number of Reported Set to Surpass Last Year’s Record

Feds Issue Urgent Warning Over a ‘Disturbing’ Rise in Inflight Sexual Assaults With Number of Reported Set to Surpass Last Year’s Record

a woman in a suit on an airplane

Federal prosecutors have issued an urgent warning to airline passengers over what they describe as a ‘disturbing’ rise in inflight sexual assaults, with the number of cases set to be reported this year expected to surpass the number of cases reported to the FBI in 2022.

In Seattle, federal prosecutors have already filed four cases and have multiple active but not yet charged cases still under investigation, Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman said on Thursday.

“We take these cases seriously and work with the FBI to investigate and prosecute them,” Gorman continued. “Federal prison is the destination for those convicted of sexual abuse on an aircraft.”

Despite these kinds of warnings to would-be offenders, however, cases are on the rise nationally, and the FBI has seen a marked increase over the last few years. In 2017, the FBI investigated 27 sexual misconduct cases aboard aircraft, but after a pandemic-induced dip, the number of reported cases ballooned to 90 last year.

The FBI fears that the number of reported cases in 2023 is set to surpass last year, with 62 cases filed since January 1 under investigation.

In one recent case, an airline mechanic who was flying on a plane operated by his employer allegedly took the hand of the victim who was sitting next to him and placed it on his crotch. He then reached under her shirt and tried to reach into her pants.

The victim had taken sleeping pills before the alleged assault.

Mary Ellen Stone, the CEO at the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, says that young women aged between 16 and 19 are most at risk of sexual assault, but many young victims are scared to speak out because they think they might be causing trouble.

“On aircraft, other passengers and crew can disrupt these behaviors,” Stone said. “Crews can take steps to separate the victim from the person causing harm, and above all, avoid minimizing any behavior that is making someone else uncomfortable.”

The Department of Justice has worked with the FBI and non-government organizations to draw up a list of top tips to keep travelers safe. These tips include:

  • Do take a moment to observe those around you and be alert and aware
  • Do try to limit use of sleep aids
  • Do leave the armrest down
  • Don’t assume that nonsexual touching from your seatmate is innocent
  • Do draw attention to suspicious activity
  • Do report sexual misconduct
  • Don’t remain in your seat if you are in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation
  • Do request that your family sit together
  • Do designate any child under 14 travelling alone as an unaccompanied minor
  • Do educate your family members about these tips.

In recent years, flight attendants have also received additional training on how best to support victims of inflight sexual assaults, including the need to take the victim’s word at face value and to call ahead for law enforcement to meet the aircraft on arrival.

Where necessary, victims can be moved to an alternative seat, and passengers should be reassured that there’s nothing to fear from reporting suspicious behavior.

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