Sexual Assaults on Airplanes Are on the Rise. Is Anything Being Done About It?

Jan. 3, 2020

Aubrey Lane was flying from Phoenix to New York when the man next to her started ordering multiple drinks at once.

As he became intoxicated, he started to make inappropriate comments to Lane, according to a federal lawsuit she filed against American Airlines in October 2018. At one point, he grabbed her face and kissed her, a witness said in an email to the airline.

“She would push him off and say that ‘couldn’t happen,’” the witness said.

After ordering four vodkas and two beers, the man was visibly drunk. He got up to go to the bathroom. Lane, taking the opportunity to also get up, went to the women’s bathroom.

The man forced himself into the bathroom with Lane and raped her, she said in the lawsuit.

Sexual assault on airplanes is a growing problem, according to data from the FBI. But no one seems to know how much of a problem it is.

“It’s definitely not getting better,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, an organization that represents airline passengers. “If there aren’t reforms, I think it’ll get worse.”

According to the FBI, in-flight sexual assaults rose from 2014 to 2017. In fiscal year 2014, 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to the FBI. In the 2017 fiscal year, that number increased to 63. Reported assaults dropped to 39 in the 2018 fiscal year, the New York Times reported.

In October 2018, the White House signed off on the creation of a 14-member task force to study sexual misconduct on airplanes. The task force’s report was meant to come out on Oct. 5. In December, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the report was expected before the end of 2019.

As of Jan. 2, the report still had not been published.

When asked about the Oct. 5 deadline, the DOT spokeswoman did not respond.

Data on sexual misconduct on airplanes

The FBI is the leading agency for investigating misconduct in the air.

In June 2018, the FBI said the number of sexual assaults reported during commercial airline flights was increasing, and the number of actual cases could be higher than those reported.

However, more recent data and details on in-flight sexual misconduct are difficult to obtain.

The Star-Telegram requested investigative reports on sexual assault on planes, statistics on the number of sexual assaults reported and data on those assaults through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI denied the request, citing rules that a federal agency does not have to create records or conduct research on requested data.

Hudson said the FBI has denied the group’s requests for data for several years.

“They know how many investigations they did, they know how many prosecutions they had,” Hudson said. “Their answer is, ‘It’s not in the standard database, so we can’t help you.’”

In 2019, two lawsuits were filed in federal court in Fort Worth alleging sexual assault on board an airplane.

On Dec. 16, U.S. Army veteran Lena Ramsay and another passenger filed a class-action lawsuit against Frontier Airlines in federal court in Colorado. Ramsay and the other woman, referred to as Jane Doe in the suit, said they were sexually assaulted during separate flights, and airline employees mishandled the cases.

The lawsuit says Frontier “fail[ed] to have and/or follow policies and procedures to prevent, report, and respond to sexual assault of its passengers on its flights.”

Hudson said the increase in overnight flights, long-distance flights and flight attendants over-serving passengers alcohol increase the likelihood of sexual misconduct in the air.

He also said the FBI does not prioritize the assaults.

“They’re organized to deal with white-collar, organized crime, terrorism, things of that nature,” he said.

Reporting process

Every day, 44,000 flights carry 2.7 million airline passengers across the world, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

If one of those passengers is assaulted or harassed, they have no official avenue to report the incident. A passenger might tell a flight attendant what happened, who may report it to the captain, who might tell a ground supervisor, who then may or may not report it to the police department where the plane is landed.

And then maybe the FBI will look into it.

“You have a four- or five-step process to get a proper investigation,” Hudson said. “In most cases, nothing occurs. Through those steps, the plane has landed, people have left and the possibility for proper investigation, much less prosecution, is gone.”

In one case, a Houston woman was flying to Paris when she took a prescribed pain killer to fall asleep. She woke up to the man next to her sexually assaulting her. She tried to remove his hand, but he made a threatening gesture to silence her, according to the woman’s lawsuit against American Airlines.

She said in the suit that she told crew members, but they told her nothing could be done.

In response to that suit, American Airlines said its policy requires a crew member to contact law enforcement if misconduct is reported on an aircraft.

Unlike most industries, airlines do not have a legal mandate to report criminal activity, such as sexual assault.

Cruise lines, for example, became required to report crimes to the FBI with the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010.

But for airplanes, “there is no singular definition of sexual misconduct, there is no federal or national definition, there is no mandate for reporting,” said Sunitha Menon, chief of consulting services operations at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

A lack of a reporting process also means a lack of data, Menon said, and no comprehensive way to track the issue.

Task force

Menon and 13 others are working to change that.

In October 2018, President Donald Trump signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which established a task force assigned to examine the problem.

The National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force consists of 14 members from varying backgrounds and groups. Menon is one of them — other members include airline representatives, Department of Justice directors, and labor organization leaders. The group started meeting once a month in April 2018.

“One of the best things that will come out of it with the energy we’ve been putting into this matter and the task force, is if you commit this sexual misconduct in the air, you’re going to face consequences on the ground,” said task force member Lyn Montgomery.

Montgomery is the president of Transport Workers Union-Local 556 — the Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants.

She said flight attendants need airlines to establish a procedure they can follow when sexual misconduct happens — especially because they are the most common victims of harassment in the air.

About 68% of flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers, according to a survey from the Association for Flight Attendants-CWA.

“It should be up to the airlines to give flight attendants the proper tools and training to quickly and adequately address these situations,” Montgomery said.

Mandated reporting and proper guidelines are a start to combating sexual misconduct on airplanes. But, as in any industry where sexual harassment happens, education is also key, Menon said.

Increasing awareness of the issue could increase reporting when it does happen and keep people cognizant. As the Me Too movement demonstrated, speaking out about these experiences can jump-start a needed conversation.

“People sit in planes and talk to people next to them without even knowing who they are,” Menon said. “It doesn’t happen frequently, but we want to make sure that when it does, the individual is supported in a holistic and victim-centered way.”

The task force’s report was originally supposed to be submitted by Oct. 5. As of Jan. 2, it still had not been made public.

Montgomery and Menon said they know the report is done, but they do not know when it will come out. As members of the task force, their job was to research and inform, not to manage the project.

Task force member Christopher Bidwell, senior vice president of security at Airports Council International-North America, said the report was sent to another committee to be finalized. He referred questions about the report’s publication to the Department of Transportation.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Hotline number is 800-656-4673.


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