A Widespread Problem
Sexual assaults occurring on airplanes have been commonplace for many years. The Association of Flight Attendants (“AFA”) reports alarming statistics. 20% of surveyed flight attendants have been notified of assaults committed against passengers, but these incidents are rarely reported to law enforcement. However, the number of in-flight sexual assaults reported to the FBI increased 66% from 2014 to 2017. It is safe to assume that many more assaults go unreported.
How do Airlines Respond to Sexual Assaults?
It depends. Currently, there are no regulations that directly address how airlines and their flight crew should respond to sexual assaults. Most airlines also have no training programs on this issue and give their flight attendants little or no guidance on how to respond when passengers report sexual assaults. As a result, the flight attendants are left to their own devices and respond in all sorts of different ways.
Many victims who report sexual violence to flight attendants are not taken seriously. Sometimes victims are not even given the opportunity to switch seats. Unfortunately, many flight attendants also fail to report assaults to law enforcement, which means there are no repercussion for the perpetrators, who are free to continue assaulting women on future flights.
What Can We Do?
Stop Blaming Victims
Far too often we hear from victims who report that the first questions they are asked by flight staff or law enforcement are: “were you talking to him?” and “were you drinking?”. This is an inexcusable demonstration of victim blaming and takes the focus away from the actual cause of the assault—the perpetrator and the unsafe circumstances that enabled the perpetrator.
As it currently stands, commercial air travel is an environment in which sexual harassment and assault thrive. When you fly, you and confined in a seat next to a complete stranger, often in the dark. Unaccompanied minors are seated without consideration to their safety. Alcohol is often served and over-served to potential perpetrators.
To make matters worse, airlines have historically given no consideration to how their standard practices enable sexual assault. Most airlines make no effort to screen their passengers for registered sex offenders.
Victims do not ask to be assaulted. It is the perpetrators who make that choice and often the airline industry that enables it. It is time to stop blaming the victims and start blaming the people and circumstances that allow assaults to happen.
Hold Airlines Accountable
Victims may have legal claims against airlines for failing to keep their passengers safe and adequately respond to reported assaults. Whether or not an incident gives rise to a legal cause of action is a complex question, which depends on the facts and the circumstances surrounding the incident. However, since the beginning of the #metoo movement, many victims have come forward and sued airlines. This financial pressure encourages airlines to take action to prevent the assaults from occurring in the first place.
Although certain airlines are making meaningful changes and proactively addressing this issue, others are not. Therefore, comprehensive regulatory reform is necessary. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 includes a provision that requires the Department of Transportation to establish a Task Force to review current airline practices, protocols, and requirements in responding to and addressing in-flight sexual misconduct by passengers and make appropriate recommendations. The Task Force will address training, reporting, and data collection. The Reauthorization Act also requires the Attorney General to develop and make public a process for individuals to report in-flight sexual misconduct to law enforcement based upon the Task Force’s recommendations.
The FAA Reauthorization Act is a start, but more needs to be done. It is time for actual regulations protecting passengers.
Nate Bingham is an Attorney with Krutch Lindell Bingham Jones, representing victims of aviation accidents and other aviation related incidents.