Are airlines doing enough to stop in-flight sexual assaults?

Think twice before taking a nap on a plane.

That’s what safety experts and frequent travelers advise in the wake of the latest in-flight sexual assault incident, a shocking encounter that happened in late October on a flight from Dubai to New York.

The circumstances are so troubling that I find it difficult to reveal the specifics. Follow the link if you must know the details. You’ve been warned.

In-flight sexual assaults are reportedly soaring.

Security consultant Steve Albrecht suspects these crimes are far more common than we think. “I wonder how many cases go unreported, out of embarrassment or shame — just like we see now with victims of sexual abuse or assault, around the world,” he says.

But some do get reported:

  • This summer, a Catholic priest was convicted of touching a woman’s breast, inner thigh and groin on an overnight cross-country US Airways flight, according to the FBI. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison.
  • Last fall, a Japanese national was ordered into custody for allegedly abusive sexual contact on a United Airlines flight. Investigators say that while aboard, he sat next to a 21-year-old female, with whom he initiated unsolicited sexual contact. The man allegedly touched her breast and leg and placed his hand under the victim’s skirt and underwear on at least two occasions during the flight, officials said.
  • A year ago, a New York resident faced charges of engaging in abusive sexual contact with a sleeping woman aboard a flight from Tokyo to Newark. The woman awoke to find the suspect’s hand on the front of her shirt, touching her breast through her clothing. He then touched the skin of her neck and attempted to place his hand down the front of the woman’s shirt, according to investigators.
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Airlines don’t publicly disclose statistics on sexual assault. The FBI recorded 170 crimes aboard aircraft in 2014 and 169 cases so far this year, but the agency doesn’t share how many of those were sexual assaults.

The U.S.Department of Transportation doesn’t even have a complaint category for assaults, let alone sexual assaults, so it’s impossible to know the extent of the problem. In the last year, it recorded a total of 15,532 complaints, up from 13,176 a year before.

“The safety and security of our passengers and crewmembers are our highest priority,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A, a trade group representing many major domestic airlines. “Airlines have processes and procedures in place to ensure that crewmembers report all observed and reported criminal activity that occurs on board the aircraft to the FAA and appropriate law enforcement authorities, who are responsible for recording such incidents and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of offenders.”

Molly Sheerer, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, says sexual assaults are taken far more seriously today than they were before 9/11.

“There is not a universal standard to enforce penalties when someone engages in assault onboard an aircraft,” she says.

Her association has long advocated for attendants to be trained in self-defense, which could stop future incidents, she says.

“Equipping flight attendants with another tool to protect those onboard will help both the crew and passengers,” she adds.

Harassed in flight

Lexi Noel, a social media consultant from Los Angeles, says part of the problem is that sexual harassment — a precursor to assault — is either underreported or completely ignored. Noel commutes between Los Angeles and Atlanta, often on the red-eye flight, and she is in a position to know.

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“Most of the times the people who sit around me are very respectful and friendly,” she says. “But unfortunately, on one of the flights back home I encountered a very sexually aggressive passenger. I tried very politely to convey my lack of interest but this man continued to sexually harass me and was getting angry at why I wasn’t interested in him.”

Finally the other male passenger sitting next to Noel intervened and threatened to contact the flight attendant.

Noel didn’t report the advances of her seatmate to the crew, believing that the other male passenger’s intervention would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

“When I got off the plane, the harassing passenger followed me until I met up with my mom,” she says. “It has now made me very aware of who is sitting next to me and I won’t take a red-eye flight unless a family member or friend is sitting next to me.”

Crew can’t be everywhere

Albrecht, the security consultant, says stopping sexual assault on planes is not just a matter of identifying the scope of the problem; it also means finding potential solutions. There are some tough questions to be asked, including: Can flight crews identify the warning signs for physical and sexual assault behavior? Do flight attendants have any training in handling a sexual assault?

“The airlines and their crews can say they can’t be everywhere and see everything, but the airline cabin is still a small space, with the opportunity for vigilance from the flight attendants as they pass on a regular basis,” he says.

Robert Siciliano, a personal security expert, says rather than rely on crewmembers to protect you, passengers should take matters into their own hands. Among his tips: Avoid taking any medications that would facilitate a deep sleep and cover your drink and take it with you to avoid a dose. Tuck a blanket under your legs, wear a visor, and keep the light on when you sleep, he adds.

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“If for some reason your seatmate creeps you out, ask to move,” he says. “If you can’t, then have a conversation with your other seatmates and bring attention to the problem.”

Finally, you can inform the crew of your misgivings and ask them to check in with you during the flight — just in case you doze off.

Are airlines doing enough to stop sexual assaults?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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