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36,000 Feet In The Air, Flight Attendants And Passengers Say 'Me, Too'

The FBI says reports of sexual assaults on commercial airline flights are on the rise.
Adam Hester
Getty Images
The FBI says reports of sexual assaults on commercial airline flights are on the rise.

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of alleged sexual assault.

Teri, a flight attendant for 12 years, says she experienced a disturbing situation on a flight just last week.

"I encountered a gentleman, maybe in his 20s, who was lying across a row of seats on a light flight, inappropriately touching himself, with children sitting around him."

Teri says "his pants were unzipped, he had his hands in his pants and he was touching his genitalia."

She didn't know what to do.

"I have never been formally trained to deal with that type of situation."

But she knew she had to do something, she says, because other passengers saw it, too.

"You have to act immediately ... It's not something that you can pretend like that isn't happening, especially when you have families that are there."

NPR is not using Teri's last name because she fears she might lose her job.

She decided to call out to him, loudly — embarrassing him and letting him know that what he was doing was not OK. And, she says, the young man stopped what he was doing and sat up. It was an act that Teri says she had never encountered before in 12 years as a flight attendant.

What Teri says happened on that flight is not all that uncommon.

The FBI says reports of sexual assaults on commercial airline flights are on the rise — from 38 in 2014 to 63 in 2017. Sexual assaults are vastly underreported generally, and may be even more so on planes.

But the incidents happen much more frequently, according to a recent survey by the Association of Flight Attendants. About 1 in 5 flight attendants say they have witnessed a passenger being sexually assaulted or had an assault reported to them. And nearly 1 in 5 flight attendants themselves say they've been sexually assaulted, and 70 percent say they've been sexually harassed in the air.

NPR spoke with about half a dozen flight attendants who say airlines have inadequate training, support and protocols — and that they haven't been properly trained to handle such incidents in a confined space, miles above the ground.

"Nowhere to go"

Teri says she has also been inappropriately touched by passengers in other ways and subjected to lewd propositions. But Teri says even when such incidents happen, even when it's a sex crime, it's not as if flight attendants can call the police right away.

"We're at 36,000 feet with nowhere to go," she says. "So if something happens in the air, you're forced to deal with that until you're on the ground."

Teri and other flight attendants say they have thorough training to deal with everything from babies being born to deaths on board, from potential terrorist attacks to fights and sudden cabin depressurization.

But they say there is almost no training for serious incidents that are actually much more common — sexual misconduct and assault.

"We're asking flight attendants who have been survivors of this for decades to suddenly be the enforcers on the plane," says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, "when we haven't set a standard of having this be something that is ... not tolerated by the airlines themselves."

Nelson notes that in the survey, only 7 percent of flight attendants who have been victims of harassment or abuse say they've reported it to their employers.

"And what that tells us is that flight attendants don't believe that they have the backing of the airlines, and that if they reported this, anyone will do anything about it."

"They like to poke us"

Teri says she is touched inappropriately by passengers on nearly every flight.

"I don't know why, but they like to poke us," she says, adding that it usually happens when she's walking through the aisle.

"They wait until we get just past them and then poke us." Teri says the passengers are often just trying to get her attention, but instead speaking out, and saying, "Excuse me, miss," they reach out and poke, or grab, at the flight attendant about upper thigh level.

"It's somewhere between the knees and the belly button is where you get poked, and it's usually from behind," she says.

A passenger sues

Allison Dvaladze often travels overseas for her work in global public health for a cancer center at the University of Washington.

In April of 2016, she was on long, overnight flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, where she would connect to a flight to Kenya, when she says she was sexually assaulted by the man seated next to her.

"It was about three hours into the flight and I was dozing off to sleep when I felt his hand in my crotch," says Dvaladze. "And I, without thinking, I slapped his hand, I yelled 'no!' I started to try to get out of my seat when he did it again."

Dvaladze says she again tried to slap the man's hand away, but he groped her yet again, before she was finally able to get out of her seat and run to the back of the plane.

"I was unable to breathe at the moment," she says. "I was short of breath and trying to explain what had happened, and the people who first came to my aid thought that I was having a medical emergency. I was then able to explain to them that I needed a flight attendant."

The lack of training and protocol described by flight attendants appears to have affected Dvaladze's case. She says she was taken to the front of the plane, where she had to explain several times to crew members what had happened.

"And they were trying to figure out what to do," Dvaladze recalls. "They expressed a lot of concern and they were sympathetic, but at the same time, I realized nobody really knew what to do. It didn't seem that there was any protocol for how to handle this situation."

Eventually, she says flight attendants moved her to a different seat. But shortly before landing, they asked her to move back to her original seat "next to the man who had groped me," she says. "I refused."

She says she thought the police would meet the plane in Amsterdam to at least take a report, but the crew hadn't contacted law enforcement authorities.

When she tried following up with Delta a few days later, Dvaladze says she didn't hear anything for a month, and then, the airline just apologized for the inconvenience and offered her 10,000 frequent flyer miles.

"I immediately responded and said this was not an inconvenience, that this is actually a crime. Here's the definition of sexual assault. I was just insulted by their response," Dvaladze says.

Dvaladze is now suing Delta. In her suit, she faults Delta for inadequate training, support and protocols and for what she calls its "negligence in adequately responding to and investigating this assault."

The airline would not comment on the litigation because it is pending. In a response filed in court, Delta wrote that "any and all damages allegedly sustained by plaintiff were not proximately caused by any negligence or culpable conduct on the part of Delta."

Many flight attendants claim the lack of training is true industrywide.

FBI suggests precautions

According to the FBI, men typically are the perpetrators, and women and unaccompanied minors are the victims. Incidents of sexual assault most often happen on long-haul flights and overnight flights, when the cabin is dark or the lights are dimmed. Victims often report that they were in the middle or window seats, covered with a blanket or jacket, and asleep, when they awake to find their seatmate's hands touching them over or under their clothing.

The FBI suggests taking the following precautions to prevent sexual assault during a flight:

  • Trust your gut. Offenders will often test their victims, sometimes pretending to brush against them to see how they react or if they wake up. "Don't give them the benefit of the doubt," says Special Agent David Gates, who is based at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and regularly investigates these kinds of cases. If such behavior occurs, reprimand the person immediately and consider asking to be moved to another seat.
  • Recognize that mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or other medication on an overnight flight increases your risk. "Don't knock yourself out with alcohol or drugs," Gates said.
  • If your seatmate is a stranger, no matter how polite he or she may seem, keep the armrest between you down.
  • If you are arranging for a child to fly unaccompanied, try to reserve an aisle seat so flight attendants can keep a closer watch on them. Caryn Highley, a special agent in the FBI's Seattle division who investigates crimes aboard aircraft, has seen victims as young as 8 years old.
  • If something happens, report it immediately to the flight crew and ask that they record the attacker's identity and report the incident. "Flight attendants and captains represent authority on the plane," Gates said. "We don't want them to be police officers, but they can alert law enforcement, and they can sometimes deal with the problem in the air." The flight crew can also put the offender on notice, which might prevent further problems.
  • Dvaladze is somewhat critical of the FBI's recommendations and wants the airlines to take a more active role to prevent these incidents. "I just don't think that that kind of recommendation is helpful," she says. "It tends to lean toward the victim blaming which is not helpful for anyone."

    "I think you really need to not put it on the person who might become assaulted but really make the potential assailant or perpetrator aware that people know that this is a problem, that they're going to keep their eyes open, and that it's a crime that you will have to pay for," she says. She adds that she'd like to see a public statement from the airlines that "people will be held accountable." An announcement, she says "just like they do for the smoke detector."

    "In the recommendations that are often made around this issue," she says, "it's still this old narrative about what women or people can do to prevent this from happening to them. And that has to change."

    Airlines tell a different story

    Though some airlines did not respond to our inquiries on what exactly are their policies in regards to sexual assault and harassment in-flight, those that did all say they take any such misconduct seriously.

    Alaska Airlines this spring announced a series of steps to improve training for flight attendants and other staff, and CEO Brad Tilden says the airline will have a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault. This after Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, complained about the airline's treatment of her after she says she was sexually harassed on a flight last fall.

    United says it started improved sexual harassment and assault training for flight attendants last year, and CEO Oscar Munoz called late last year for zero tolerance of sexual harassment and assault.

    Southwest says its crews are "trained to deal with a wide range of sensitive customer issues" and that the airline "has a zero tolerance policy for any type of assault on board."

    American Airlines says it provides "enhanced training for flight attendants that focuses on passenger misconduct," and "we have made it easier for our team members to report — and ultimately address — concerns." In addition, American says when incidents happen in-flight, flight attendants may separate and move passengers, and if necessary, will have law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival.

    And Delta says its crews "are trained to respond to a number of onboard passenger disruptions, and ... treat all reports of harassment as serious ... When we become aware of incidents onboard, we investigate and can take a number of steps including reaching out to local law enforcement."

    That last statement exposes one of the problems in addressing sexual assault inflight — whose jurisdiction is it to investigate and prosecute sex crimes in the air?

    The FBI this week held a news conference at Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall airport to clarify.

    "Any crime aboard an aircraft falls within the FBI's jurisdiction," says Brian Nadeau, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office. "Sexual assault aboard an aircraft is an unwelcome sexual touching, from grazing a body part to even more graphic acts. These acts are felonies, which can land an offender in a federal prison for up to 10 years, or if aggravated, up to life."

    The industry lobbying group, Airlines for America, offered a similar statement, adding that it supports creating "a task force to develop best practices and ensure that training is in place for all flight attendants," as called for in legislation passed by Congress and signed into law this spring. But the U.S. Department of Transportation has not yet begun to implement any of the actions required under that law.

    And while flight attendants applaud some of these recent steps forward, they say the airlines' efforts thus far to improve training and focus on sexual misconduct, in particular, are piecemeal and uneven at best.

    Allison Dvaladze has become an activist on the issue since her alleged assault. She says she'd like to see a message from the airlines at least as strong as that about smoking on board.

    "Everyone on a plane knows that it's illegal to tamper with a smoke detector," says Dvaladze, adding "and I'd love to see the data on how often that happens, versus if we had data on how often people are sexually harassed or assaulted on a flight, because we don't have that data."

    Legislation introduced into both the U.S. House and the Senate would require airlines to begin collecting that data, to improve sexual assault and harassment training, and to establish better reporting procedures.

    Supporters are hoping at least some of those provisions can be attached to an FAA reauthorization bill that could pass through Congress this summer.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.