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The State of In-Flight Sexual Assault

Smaller seats, cheaper flights, passengers behaving badly—whether you believe flying has improved or gotten worse in recent years, until now the skies have remained a Wild West in at least one way: in-flight sexual assaults. The FBI said that in 2018 it saw “more reports of in-flight sexual assault than ever before.”

FBI investigations into sexual assaults on planes have increased by 66 percent since 2014. Calling the change “alarming,” the agency has launched a public awareness campaign about the trend. According to CNN, “The bureau said it had opened 63 investigations into sexual assault on aircraft in 2017, compared with 57 in 2016, 40 in 2015, and 38 in 2014.” Airlines and flight attendants say they haven’t had much training or many resources to deal with in-flight sexual assaults.

But that might be about to change thanks to a new task force and some high-profile in-flight sexual assault court cases.

What’s Being Done to Stop In-Flight Sexual Assault

A man accused of assaulting a woman mid-flight in early 2018 was recently sentenced to nine years in prison. Since then, the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (ACPAC) has formed a new in-flight sexual misconduct task force, which it says will review the requirements of U.S. airlines responding to and reporting in-flight sexual assaults to federal authorities. Still more charges have been filed in federal courts for other in-flight sexual assaults, and the issue has become more widely covered by media than it was in the past.

Some airlines have announced changes to their in-flight protocol or “zero-tolerance policies” for handling sexual misconduct—Alaska and United among them. Here’s what Alaska (which the Association of Flight Attendants told me is “leading the industry” on sexual assault training) has done:

  • “We recognized the need to update training to support our employees.  We’ll continue to learn from our employees, labor partners, guests, law enforcement, and experts in the field to design new training and resources. To begin, we launched new training for flight attendants and added a sexual assault scenario to existing recurrent training based on information from RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. This summer we’ll hold additional in-person training.
  • “This spring [2018], we’re hosting conversations about preventing and addressing sexual harassment and assault.
  • “We’re developing training for all employees aimed at preventing sexual harassment and assault, and other forms of harassment, with a research-based approach focused on the impact of individual choices to shift social norms.
  • “And we’re developing onboard resources to clarify how guests can support one another and our crews. Every day, we see examples of how you look out for each other and for our employees. We want to do our part to help make sure this continues.”

Most other airlines have stayed silent on the subject, but the DOT’s new sexual assault task force is set to meet for the first time in January 2019, and to appoint an expert representative for U.S.-based airlines.

Have you heard more about in-flight sexual assault this year? What do you expect to change in 2019? Comment below.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon is a former news reporter who writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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