Flight attendants need to feel empowered to fight harassment

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When she was in her late 20s, flight attendant Sandra Davis went back onto the empty aircraft on which she’d just flown to retrieve a sweater a passenger had left on the plane. She was bending over looking on the floor when she was joined by her supervisor. She thought he was there to help her. He was not.

As she moved into the back of the airplane to give him space to look, he got uncomfortably close to her, Davis remembered. “There was not a lot of space between our bodies” she said. Then she recalled he told her, “’I knew it was you down here, I could smell you.’ I said, ‘excuse me?’ and he said, ‘I could smell your scent’ and then he started to smell me.” Davis said she rushed off the airplane. Several days later after giving it some thought she reported the episode but was convinced by her managers that she misunderstood his intentions and that in any event, she could harm his career by pursuing it. She let it drop. Sandra Davis is not her real name, but the story is true.

Davis still works as a flight attendant and regrets her decision not to pursue the complaint.

There are few professionals who view the recent news of famous men being accused of sexual predation with more interest than flight attendants. They work in a field which for many years was all about physical appearance and passengers were encouraged to believe the cabin crew was on board for their pleasure. Most airlines have eliminated appearance criteria but flight attendants are still regularly subjected to unwanted familiarity and sexual advances.

Passengers “touch our bottoms or grab our waists like we are public property,” said Davis who has been a flight attendant for 30 years. “Male flight attendants, they get it differently they will get some homophobic remarks,” she said.

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“We are the survivors of sexual harassment on a daily basis,” said Sara Nelson, a flight attendant and president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

So it is frustrating that the latest high-profile complaint by a passenger about sexual harassment in the air pins some of the blame on the cabin crew of an Alaska Airlines flight.

Randi Zuckerberg, a California technology executive and the sister of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, said the problem on her flight to Mazatlán, Mexico from Los Angeles began immediately after boarding. Zuckerberg was in 4A and the man sitting in 4C made sexual comments to her and about other passengers who filed by them on their way to their seats.

In a letter to the airline, Zuckerberg called the man’s statements “horrifying and offensive”. It is unclear whether she notified the crew before takeoff, but when she did speak up, she was offered an opportunity to move to the back of the economy section, which she declined.

“Why is it the woman who has to switch seats in this situation? Shouldn’t he have been thrown off the plane?!” she wrote in her letter.

Zuckerberg’s experience raises several issues.

First, her argument that the offending passenger should be re-seated and not her, would be hard to refute in a theater or a restaurant, but an airliner in flight is one place where it is never a good idea to provoke a confrontation which can lead to unpredictable outcomes. Here’s how Southwest Airlines chooses to address it.

“The flight attendant would use techniques learned in training to defuse the situation and determine if it needs to escalate to a security threat,” said the airline’s Cindy Hermosillo.

“We have to deal with a close, confined space where you cannot walk away. You cannot call for help. Our biggest challenge is keeping the temperature down,” Nelson added.

Because options are so limited once the plane is in the air, it is critical that badly behaved passengers aren’t allowed on the plane, or are taken off before it departs.

This is not such an unusual occurrence. Passengers are removed for creating a disturbance every day one executive told me. This time last year, a Yemini-American traveling from London to New York was taken off a Delta Air Lines plane prior to pushback when he created a stir by speaking loudly on his mobile phone in Arabic while his friend videotaped the scene.

Airlines regularly discuss how they will handle events like this in cooperation with the US Department of Homeland Security because “the one area where the industry has collaborated is on safety and security”, according to this executive who did not want to be identified by name or employer.

Notably, sexual assaults on passengers don’t receive a similar level of attention.

A 16-year old girl was groped by a 30-year old on a United flight this summer and a business woman on a Delta flight woke up when her seatmate put his hand between her legs in April of 2016. Conde Nast Traveler published a list of assaults over the past few years in an article it ran this spring, and that’s before Randi Zuckerberg became the latest to allege the airline failed to protect her.

The second reason flight attendants on Zuckerberg’s flight may not have responded as she expected has to do with the airline itself; what kind of training is given to cabin crew and how much support will they get if they take action? On both counts, airlines appear deficient.

“In the absence of an airline policy about this behavior, I wouldn’t have felt empowered to kick the guy off the plane, especially if I hadn’t witnessed it myself,” said Tiffany Hawk, a former flight attendant turned novelist. “If we were in the air, forget it. He’d have to be endangering the flight to justify a diversion.”

After the Zuckerberg case, I sent emails to some of the largest airlines, including Delta, United, American and Southwest, asking about their policies. Only Southwest replied. That’s not because the airlines don’t have a policy, as Hawk suggested. Most of them do, according to the AFA which represents 20 airlines.

“There is written policy,” Nelson told me. “There is virtually no guidance or training, no pointing to this issue as a unique issue. There’s no discussion about it.”

Policy is useless if it is not given any priority, or a means to implement it. But sexual harassment is not a priority for airline executives, the vast majority of whom are men, because they have no idea how widespread it is, a number of flight attendants told me.

“These CEOs, they don’t understand what’s going on on the line. The flight attendants have the most contact with the traveling public and CEOs are detached,” Davis said.

The third issue is probably hardest to gauge but has its roots in the past; the legacy of the profession and the speeded-up world in which we live with expectations changing with breakneck speed. Having spent decades in a highly sexualized workplace, some flight attendants may have become desensitized to situations other women find highly upsetting.

We “figured out how to survive in that environment and have used a whole scope of tolerance methods and coping mechanisms,” Nelson said, noting the irony that “the people who experience it more than anyone on the plane are now supposed to be the enforcers.”

Alaska Airlines says it will investigate the Zuckerberg complaint and while your author worries it will be yet another case of front-line employees taking the heat for executive action or inaction, Nelson is more optimistic.

“We’re in this window of time where victims are getting support; that has never happened before,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment that’s giving the industry reason to talk about it and I’m going to be pushing to move forward.”

Photo of Sara Nelson at top credited to Sara Nelson.

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