A lot of terrible things can happen on a plane: a runway crash, mid-flight mechanical issues, a medical emergency. An anxious mind might run through them before take off. But how often do you worry about a fellow passenger committing sexual assault?
In-flight sexual assault is a problem that remained largely under the radar until the #MeToo era, when passengers began to question airlines’ handling (or lack thereof) of sexual assault on their planes. Case in point: The Seattle Times recently reported that Delta is currently being sued by a passenger who says the airline filed no formal report after she was sexually assaulted on one of its flights.
A recent survey from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a union of 50,000 flight attendants representing 20 airlines, suggests that in-flight sexual assault allegations are reported to law enforcement less than half of the time. The AFA survey also found that one in five flight attendants has encountered a passenger-on-passenger in-flight sexual assault.
What to Do if There’s a Sexual Assault on Your Flight
Who’s responsible for your safety when the cabin lights dim? And what happens after an in-flight sexual assault if that near-unthinkable nightmare becomes a reality?
Delta and other airlines declined my requests for comment, so I turned to the AFA to find out what passengers should do in the event of an in-flight sexual assault, and what—if anything—airlines are doing to change their treatment of victims. AFA president and spokesperson Taylor Garland told me two airlines are championing in-flight sexual assault reform, and shared some key to-dos.
Know the Basics
One of the main problems with in-flight sexual assault is that airlines often respond to them the same way they would to an unruly passenger, despite the fact that sex-related crimes are more sensitive and serious.
“All flight attendants go through de-escalation training and unruly passenger training. We are also trained to respond to assault,” Garland says. But, she notes, “there is no specific training for flight attendants on how to handle sexual assault.”
Still, some airlines are better about handling the issue. “Alaska Airlines and United Airlines have been working to update policies and training to address sexual assault,” Garland says. “They’re leading the industry on this and we’re not aware of any other airline doing the same.”
The FAA doesn’t require any sexual-assault-specific training for flight attendants. Further complicating the reporting process, crimes committed on an airplane fall under federal jurisdiction (the FBI if you’re in the United States) but local law enforcement are typically the officers that will be called to the gate.
Alert a Flight Attendant
Cabin crew are the first responders to in-flight sexual assaults.
“Do your best to notify a flight attendant,” Garland says. “Sometimes this is hard to do if passengers are seated in a window seat, where they might physically have to climb over the perpetrator to get to a crew member.”
Victims trapped in a window seat should use the call button and loudly object to make sure others around them know there’s a problem. Garland notes neighboring passengers, too, can be responsible for speaking up and helping report sexual assault: “If you witness something on a plane, always alert a flight attendant.”
The lack of personal space and presence of alcohol on planes can also be factors in an in-flight sexual assault. “Seats are closer together so the line of sight is diminished among passengers, and with fewer flight attendants there is simply less oversight,” Garland says. “On night flights the cabin is dark. Alcohol is an issue. This is commonly reported as a more frequent factor when flying to a vacation destination or places like Las Vegas.”
Request a New Seat
The main response to an in-flight sexual assault is to re-seat the victim away from their assaulter, so this should be your first request if it’s not done right away. “In every instance, there should be an effort to immediately separate the passengers,” Garland says.
This can be difficult in crowded cabins, but getting to safety is, as in most assaults, the first step.
Make Sure the Pilot Knows
“Procedures would also call for reporting the incident to the flight deck and the airline, at a minimum,” Garland says. Reporting the crime to the pilot is how law enforcement will be notified and able to meet you at the gate for assistance.
“There is not a direct reporting process,” Garland notes. “The flight attendants report to the flight deck, who reports to ground personnel for the airline, who in return would report to local law enforcement or the FBI. Unless there has been some other disruption/interference with the flight crew, the victim must say they want to file charges.”
That last part is important—because airlines have little legal responsibility in these situations, victims of in-flight sexual assault will often have to advocate for themselves to ensure that proper reporting steps are followed. For now, at least, it could be up to you to ask questions and ensure law enforcement will be waiting for you at the gate.
Contact the Airline
While your first priority as a victim or a witness should be to deal with the immediate situation and to speak with law enforcement, it’s also important to follow up with the airline afterward to make sure the incident is documented internally, as well. It’s time to address the lack of in-flight protocols for assaults that are sexual in nature.
“Flight attendants need the tools to be able to address this. AFA also calls on airports, airlines, and government agencies to immediately enlist everyone traveling in an effort to stop sexual harassment and sexual assault. The greater the discussion around denouncing these acts, the safer all passengers, crew, and airport workers will be,” the AFA says.
“Onboard sexual assault is a unique crime and should be identified as one.”
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