When the Friendly Skies Turn Dangerous
How women are learning to protect ourselves from inflight assaults
One with Heart Program Coordinator
Is air travel on your vacation itinerary this summer? Last month I took a short trip to Boulder which involved four flights; every flight was over-sold and packed to capacity. As I sat, squished in my seat, exhausted and dozing off, I recalled reading an article about a woman who was sexually assaulted while asleep on a flight from Seattle to Amsterdam. I decided to catch up on my sleep after I returned home.
I only recently became aware that sexual assaults are happening on planes, mostly to women and young girls. Are other women aware of it, concerned about it? I decided to ask. Within a few days an acquaintance told me this story. A young woman who attends her church was traumatized by a recent experience on a plane. This woman had taken several sleeping pills because she is a very nervous flyer. She was sleeping so soundly that she didn’t wake up until the man next to her had his hand all the way in her underwear. She bolted out of her seat, got help and was moved to a different seat (fortunately there was one available). There was no follow-up. The man was not detained at the airport. The woman blames herself for not waking up sooner and can’t imagine getting back on an airplane.
Her story is similar to the story I read by Allison Dvaladz, in Conde’ Nast Traveler magazine. Ms. Dvaladz is the director of global strategy, partnership and advocacy for two global breast oncology initiatives. She flies a lot. In April 2016, on a Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, she was dozing off when she felt the man next to her put his hand between her legs. She yelled “no” and hit his hand away. He grabbed her again. Again she hit him. As he reached for her the third time she managed to get out of her seat and run to the flight attendants at the back of the plane. The flight attendants were of little help. In fact, rather than offer her support, they asked her what they should do. They found her a new seat and gave her a piece of advice: “Sometimes you just have to let these things roll off your back.” The flight crew did not notify authorities in Amsterdam and the offender simply walked off the plane and disappeared into the busy airport.[i]
Air travel puts us in unique circumstances where we are both vulnerable and accessible; and vulnerable and accessible are exactly what predatory sex-offenders look for. Normal physical boundaries are broken down; you are body to body with fellow passengers, often in darkened cabins. It is not uncommon for people to take sleeping medication to calm nerves or help them sleep during long, overnight flights. It is hard to escape, especially if all the seats are full. Physical defense would likely be frowned upon and people feel an understandable reluctance to make a scene in such a confined and crowded situation. The flight crews’ main focus is to maintain a calm, congenial atmosphere to help assure the plane arrives safely at its destination.
As I looked further into this, I found numerous stories of sexual assaults on planes, including an accusation made by Jessica Leeds that President Trump sexually groped her on a flight in the early 1980’s.[ii] I wanted to know what airlines are doing to address the issue.
I contacted four major U.S. airlines by email and, when possible, also by phone - Delta, United, Alaska, and American Airlines – with a series of seven questions.[iii] Delta and United did not reply at all. American Airlines replied with a generic email that framed my questions about sexual assault as “behavior that is perceived as a nuisance.”[iv] I spoke with two people at Alaska Airlines, a Customer Care representative and Jackie Korte in Safety Programs and Regulatory Compliance for the Department of Inflight Security. Neither had any information for me and both claimed to be unaware that sexual assault happens aboard airplanes. This simply cannot be true. A woman was charged with sexually assaulting another woman on an Alaska Airlines flight in May of 2016 and both American Airlines and Delta Airlines have been involved in law suits for not adequately protecting passengers from sexual violence.
Why the reluctance to talk about this? According to Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, airlines are reluctant to address situations that are unpleasant… “no one wants to take lead on such an issue and risk being perceived as the sexual assault airline.” [v] Really? By the time we board the plane we have had to remove our shoes, belt and outerwear. We have been x-rayed and patted down. We have possibly had all our items riffled through and any liquids more than three ounces thrown in the garbage. Once in our seats we are shown how to apply our oxygen mask and access a floatation device in case we plunge into the sea. Airlines are not reluctant to address the unpleasant risks of terrorism and mechanical malfunction, but are reluctant to develop, train or even talk about procedures for responding to inflight harassment and assault.
It isn’t ‘unpleasant situations’ in general that we shy away from. It is ‘unpleasant situations’ that primarily impact women and children. We strategize for dealing with natural disasters, we do fire safety training with children, we pour resources into addressing the threat of terrorism, but corporate and political leadership do not employ the same resources and pragmatic approach to preventing sexual violence.
For a long time, women have taken our safety into our own hands. We communicate, organize, pressure leadership, and develop strategies for preventing and surviving violence. When Allison Dvaladz learned that the airlines have no protocol for addressing sexual assault and aren’t even keeping accurate information on how often it happens, she took action. She met with Washington Senator Patty Murray to rally pollical pressure to insist airlines track and address the issue, and she put together a facebook page ‘Protect Airline Passengers from Sexual Assault’ to serve as a clearing house for what little data and information she could find.[vi]
While the likelihood of being sexually assaulted on a plane is relatively low, it is not new and the instances seem to be increasing. In 2001 The Journal of Air Law and Commerce found that one-third of all cases of unruly behavior on airplanes involve sexual misconduct.[vii] According to the FBI, reported incidents of sexual assault during air travel increased 45 percent in 2016. There were 56 FBI investigations of sexual assaults on aircraft between January and September of 2016.[viii] If you take into account that, in general, 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, it is quite possible this is happening to hundreds of people a year.
Acknowledging a problem and providing people with tools and information to address it goes a long way toward prevention. Airlines could take a few simple steps to make flights safer. Offer flight attendants training in standard protocol for responding to an inflight assault. Add to their preflight announcements that there is zero tolerance for harassment of other passengers and let everyone know that flight attendants will assist passengers in responding to inappropriate or abusive behavior.
Here are a few strategies One with Heart recommends for preventing or defending against a sexual assault on an airplane [ix]
1. Be aware: while this doesn’t happen often, it does happen.
2. Trust your intuition: if you are not comfortable with another passengers’ behavior, there is likely a reason.
3. Speak up: if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable with the person seated next to you, tell a flight attendant and ask to change seats.
4. Be assertive: if someone encroaches on your space, tell them to move.
5. Respond immediately: if you are assaulted, respond with a loud voice, leave your seat, and immediately tell a flight attendant. If you need to strike the offender to get away, you have the right to protect yourself.
6. Advocate for yourself: ask to be seated away from the offender, and ask someone to call ahead and have agents ready to detain the offender at the gate.
7. Remember it isn’t your fault: if you had a drink, a sleeping pill, or were friendly with the offender before the assault, you did nothing to deserve being assaulted.
[i] Halverson, Matthew. March 29, 2017. The Unfriendly Skies: Why Sexual Assault Still Plagues Air Travel. Con Nast’ Traveler.
[ii] Schwartz, Karen. Oct. 20, 2016. Recent Incidents Put a New Focus on Sexual Assault on Airplanes. The New York Times.
[iii] I asked the following 7 questions:
1. Do you have policies for handling alleged sexual assault on a flight?
2. Do your flight attendants have training in taking complaints about sexual assault?
3. Has this issue come up for you?
4. What do you recommend a woman do in response to a sexual assault inflight?
5. If a woman claimed to have been assaulted in her seat, what would you do to increase her safety while in the air?
6. Would you detain the alleged offender at the gate?
7. What would your response be to the woman if she physically defended herself?
[iv] American Airlines response:
June 16, 2017
Thank you for contacting American Airlines.
Our employees strive to provide all of our customers with a safe and pleasant flying experience, and we try to ensure you are not subjected to uncomfortable situations by other passengers. However, as in any public gathering, there may be occasions when a conflict arises between people or when one individual's actions bother another. Since our crew members may not be witness to all the behaviors or actions of a particular passenger, there may be a limit to what they can do to improve behavior that is perceived as a nuisance. In the face of any serious disturbance, our crews are trained to diffuse potentially volatile situations so as to ensure the safety and well-being of all our customers and crew members.
Katherine, if you have any more question or concerns, please let us know.
I highlighted the language that minimizes the significance of the problem, and emailed back a reply stating clearly that I was not talking about ‘behavior that is perceived as a nuisance’, but sexual assault. I attached links to several articles and reiterated the 7 questions. I have received no further response.
[v] Halverson, Matthew. March 29, 2017. The Unfriendly Skies: Why Sexual Assault Still Plagues Air Travel. Con Nast’ Traveler.
[vii] Karp, Judith R. Mile High Assaults: Air Carriers Liability Under the Warsaw Convention. Journal of Air Law and Commerce
[viii] Schwartz, Karen. Oct. 20, 2016. Recent Incidents Put a New Focus on Sexual Assault on Airplanes. The New York Times.
On July 26, a customer care representative from Delta Airlines called in response to the email I sent them on June 16. She said that “the safety of every passenger regardless of race or gender is their top priority.” She told me she had no knowledge of a sexual assault happening on a Delta flight. She said flight attendants receive training in responding to a variety of threats to passenger safety, including sexual harassment. Their policy is to contact agents at the destination airport and have them waiting to detain the offender.
My initial email to Delta included the article about Ms. Devaldz. She had not read the article and did not know why the attendants did not notify agents at the Amsterdam airport after the assault. She reiterated that passenger safety is their top priority.