Inflight sexual harassment incidents demand better response

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All passengers should feel safe on board their flight. That includes feeling safe from predatory behaviors of fellow passengers. But the #MeToo movement is advancing at a slow pace in the skies. And there are no global mandatory reporting procedures in place.

The International Air Transport Association’s Safety Trend Evaluation, Analysis & Data Exchange System (STEADES) – which tracks incidents of unruly and disruptive behaviors based on voluntary reporting by participating IATA member airlines – can give us an idea of the extent of the problem.

In recent years, the overall numbers of incidents voluntarily reported by airlines have declined, but the more severe categories of incidents, which include sexual harassment and assault, are on the rise. For instance, in 2017, a total 8,731 incidents of unruly behavior were tracked via STEADES, including 350 consolidated reports of Level 2 incidents, which include inappropriate verbal behavior such as racial, ageist and homophobic slurs and abuse, as well as physical behavior such as inappropriate touching.

Of these Level 2 incidents, 236 were categorized as “incidents involving physically inappropriate behavior such as touching, indecent acts or physical or racial aggression”, IATA told Runway Girl Network.


Reporting and action are at the discretion of the crew and the airline. But the ultimate prosecution for unruly behavior relies on governments’ readiness to follow-through.

“Airlines take verbal or physical abuse of crew and between passengers very seriously,” said an IATA spokesperson. “Where the issue is between passengers, it is important that victims inform the crew so that immediate mitigation measures can be taken to the extent possible – for example, where possible, seating the victim away from the accused. Dependent on the nature of the complaint, and if an offense has been committed, the victim may want to take the matter further and make a formal complaint to the authorities upon landing.

“However, there is also a need to ensure that when the aircraft lands, that country has the jurisdiction to be able to deal with the alleged perpetrator. Because of gaps in international law, Tokyo Convention (1963), this is not always the case. This underlines the importance for States to ratify the Montreal Protocol 2014 which closes these gaps by giving governments the means to be able to deal with unruly passengers on board international flights, irrespective of the country in which the aircraft is registered. This will act as a stronger deterrent.”

FBI raises alarm and flight attendants unite

For its part, the FBI has made the issue of sexual assault on aircraft a priority, reporting on incidents and raising public awareness. Last year the agency saw an increase in incidents. But like STEADES, the FBI’s numbers do not paint a complete picture. They only reflect incidents where the FBI was involved.

Flight attendants are on the front lines tackling this problem but are also impaired by being frequent victims of harassment and assault themselves. Flight attendant unions in the US have been vocal about the issue, and have encouraged airlines to act. To date, they have had some limited success.

“Flight attendants have long believed that nothing would be done if they reported incidents of sexual harassment by passengers. Over the last year, we have worked to change that,” said a spokesperson for AFA-CWA. To wit, in December 2017, AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson called on airline CEOs to denounce the airline industry’s sexist past and commit to zero tolerance of sexual harassment in the cabin.

The historical sexist treatment of flight attendants emboldens predators, Nelson wrote in an Op-Ed for The Washington Post. “Not that long ago, the industry marketed the objectification of ‘stewardesses,’ a job only available to young, single, perfectly polished women who until 1993 were required to step on a weight scale. The industry never disavowed the marketing schemes featuring short skirts, hot pants and ads that had young women saying things like ‘I’m Cheryl, fly me.’ Even today, we are called pet names, patted on the rear when a passenger wants our attention, cornered in the back galley and asked about our ‘hottest’ layover, and subjected to incidents not fit for print.”

AFA-CWA conducted a survey of more than 3,500 members to understand their experience with inflight sexual harassment. Published last year, the survey shows that 68% of flight attendants have experienced incidents of sexual harassment during their careers; 18% of these have entailed physical harassment.

In response to a Congressional request last year, the union also conducted a survey of 1,929 flight attendants to look at the issue as it pertains to passengers. The survey revealed that one out of five flight attendants has experienced a report of passenger-on-passenger sexual assault in-flight. Law enforcement was called in to address half of these reported incidents.

Paul Hudson, president of consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights, reckons there needs to be better training on procedures for managing and reporting incidents. And in the US, he believes there should be clearer instructions on how incidents of assault should be reported to the FBI. “We suggest a special FBI hotline for in flight sexual assault reporting,” said Hudson. “Currently, the flight attendant contacts the captain who contacts the ground supervisor who may contact law enforcement. Airline policies that require a 4-5 step process to contact law enforcement inflight lead to 95% no action.”

Hudson also points out that there is no mandatory reporting of incidents, which might give a more complete picture of the problem and there are no clear guidelines to define sexual harassment and assault. He suggests airlines should be required to grant passengers who complain an automatic seat change.

But in her Op-Ed, Nelson addressed the quandary of expecting a group of people who have been frequently harassed for decades to effectively become enforcers during inflight emergencies. “Knowing that CEOs will back us up will also make it easier for flight attendants to intervene when passengers are sexually harassed or assaulted on planes. Flight attendants need to know the airlines will take this as seriously as any other safety duty we perform,” she wrote.

Airline CEOs speak out

Change can be slow, but the industry is taking steps. Last year, Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden, Spirit Airlines CEO Bob Fornaro, and United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz answered the AFA-CWA’s call, and issued statements speaking out against inflight sexual harassment. Alaska Airlines also banned some passengers from their airline because of sexual harassment of flight attendants.

While laudable, this is a very limited response. It does not even include the leadership of all North American airlines. If anything is to change on a global scale, then this message needs to come from all corners of the world with a clear, steady and unified voice.

Root cause and corrective actions

Alcohol and drugs consumption are known contributors to incidents of unruly passenger behavior overall, including incidents of harassment. Airlines have joined with airports to take action to lessen this risk. No doubt, more can be done.

But the root cause of this problem rests in a global society which has not made discouraging sexual harassment a priority, and which is only beginning to appreciate how many vulnerable individuals have been victimized by predators.

Airlines cannot fix society, but as an integral element of a modern society, they can be seen to take strong actions on factors within their control. Flight crew and passengers alike are left vulnerable by legal loopholes at 30,000 feet.

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