Editor’s comment: You shouldn’t have to travel in fear on an airplane

Inflight editor Alexander Preston summarises the latest happenings across IFEC and cabin technology.

US-based airline passenger non-profit organisation FlyersRights.org has published a list of detailed passenger complaints of in-flight sexual assaults made to the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

The 20 cases cover the time period from 1 January 2012 to 30 January 2018, involve both US and foreign carriers, cover all cabin classes and arise from claims of sexual assault or misconduct. In one case, the victim was a child or minor under the age of 18.

According to Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a former counsel to the NYS Crime Victims Board: “These complaints show in graphic detail what is happening with increasing frequency – mainly on long-haul flights, with lots of alcohol, and usually to women travelling alone. It is but a small sample of the hundreds to thousands of sexual abuse incidents that are vastly under-reported and rarely prosecuted.”

In one instance, a passenger discovered that the airline did not retain any records of her assault when a belligerent and seemingly intoxicated passenger was almost removed pre-flight before “a flight attendant intervened… and he was allowed to ‘sleep it off’.”

In April this year, the FBI took advantage of Sexual Assault Awareness Month to highlight the rise of sexual assault onboard aircraft.

Crimes on aircraft fall within the FBI’s jurisdiction, and in the case of in-flight sexual assaults, agents describe elements of these crimes as being strikingly similar. The attacks generally occur on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark. The victims are usually in the middle or window seats, sleeping, and covered with a blanket or jacket. They report waking up to their seatmate’s hands inside their clothing or underwear.

As FBI Special Agent David Gates, who is based at Los Angeles International Airport, said: “Even one victim is unacceptable. We are seeing more reports of in-flight sexual assault than ever before.”

The organisation received 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault in fiscal year 2014, however this rose to 63 in the last fiscal year. “It’s safe to say that many incidents occur that are not reported,” said Gates.

“It doesn’t matter when you report an in-flight sexual assault – we take it seriously, and we will pursue it,” Gates said. “But after the fact, these cases are much more difficult to prove.”

One victim of a 2016 attack, whose case is still open, explained: “A lot of women don’t come forward because they are embarrassed. It is embarrassing in the moment. It’s awkward when the flight crew starts asking you all these questions and passengers are staring at you. The burden has been placed on you instead of the person who just inflicted this on you,” she said. “Recognise and understand that. People should not be able to get away with these crimes.”


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