Why Don't Airlines Know How to Deal With Sexual Assault on Flights?

© Michaela Pointon / Joe Brooks
© Michaela Pointon / Joe Brooks
Photo of Alex Jordan
Travel Expert6 December 2017

A recent case of sexual misconduct on a flight shows that more needs to be done to deter offenders and support survivors.

Sexual assault on flights is far from a small problem. Last month, American Airlines caught the public’s attention for all the wrong reasons after a female passenger was left ‘shaking and crying’ by a man caught masturbating next to her as she slept.

A fellow passenger spotted the incident and reported it to a member of the cabin crew. After landing, the victim contacted American Airline’s legal team, only to receive a ‘generic email’ weeks later.

In a Medium post about her ordeal, Ms. King explains how, despite being the ones to tell her about the incident, flight attendants made her return to the seat for the rest of the flight.

‘What they didn’t do was wake me up and move me to a safe place,’ writes King. ‘What they didn’t do was accommodate my request — after informing me of the assault — to sit anywhere else on the plane for landing.’

Instead, they made her ‘climb back over the sex offender, trapped between him and the window for the rest of the flight.’

When cabin crew undergo training, the general protocol for these kind of incidents is to separate passengers and re-seat them as far away from each other as possible.

© Michaela Pointon / Joe Brooks

In Ms. King’s case, not only did she have to return to her seat knowing what had happened, but was, unbelievably, made to climb over the offender to do so – a complete lack of sensitivity and compassion from the airline.

American Airlines says it has launched an internal enquiry into how the incident could have been handled better, but for the victim this will surely come as little consolation. Culture Trip contacted the airline but is yet to receive a response.

Another woman who was repeatedly groped by a passenger on a Delta Airways flight earlier this year said she felt it ‘clear they [cabin crew] were not trained to handle these situations’.

‘If the flight is grounded we can have the passenger removed from the flight and arrested,’ a former flight attendant for a major transcontinental carrier (who wished to remain anonymous) told Culture Trip.

Once in the sky, however, it’s often left to the discretion of the senior cabin crew to log the incident in their flight notes and deal with it as best they can.

© Michaela Pointon / Joe Brooks

When an assault involves a member of staff, the reaction from airlines is a lot stronger.

‘A drunk guy put his hand up a cabin crew’s skirt when she bent down to get a drink from the cart,’ says the former flight attendant. ‘The airline took him to court and he was given a lifetime ban from flying with them again.’

While cabin crew have access to counselling, the same support system isn’t available to passengers. ‘I’ve heard so many stories,’ says our anonymous former cabin crew. ‘These things happen surprisingly often and more should be done in terms of aftercare.’

According to one report, in 2016 there were nearly 40 cases open with the FBI into sexual misconduct and assault on airlines, and there’s little doubt countless other cases go unreported.

The ‘hush hush’ attitude of airlines to minimise fuss and responsibility is unacceptable. More should be done to deter offenders from attempting anything and to offer survivors comprehensive advice.

‘Our approach was to organise all the needed information in a more accessible and intuitive way, that’s easier to keep up to date,’ Jack Zandi, co-founder of Reach Out told Culture Trip. His service makes it easier for college students to report sexual misconduct and assault and seek counselling.

© Michaela Pointon / Joe Brooks

‘Small inconveniences build up,’ he says. ‘If a survivor calls and the phone’s dead, or the person they wanted to speak to no longer works there, it may prohibit them from reporting the assault. A small thing can boost you up or put you down.’

Trying to find useful information about what to do if assaulted on a flight is harder than you think. Survivors may be asked to fill out the same customer service questionnaire as someone whose flight was delayed or who had a gripe with in-flight service.

The problem may be more far reaching than airlines care to admit, as one in five women are victims of sexual assault, some 75% of flight attendants are women and less than 5% of airline CEOs are female.

Its the same thing people say when you tell them about the college problem, says Zandi. ‘The problem is pervasive everywhere. It shouldn’t be questioned anywhere, if it exists in one place it probably exists everywhere else. It happens in the corporate world (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently stepped down amid allegations of sexual harassment at the company), in the White House and on FOX News.’

‘Everyone should be taking it more seriously,’ he says. ‘Just because it hasn’t happened to you doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to your friend.’

For more on this issue check out the New-Delhi based airline giving female solo travellers a better experience.

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