Flight attendants and passengers call for clearer policies around sexual assault on planes

Flight attendants and passengers call for clearer policies around sexual assault on planes

Originally published by PBS NewsHour on February 11, 2018

In 2017, the FBI investigated 63 allegations of sexual assault on airplanes, with several public figures speaking out about their own experiences. But no database tracks these incidents, and airlines are not required to report them to the federal government. Meanwhile, cabin crew report that training on how to handle harassment and assault is inadequate. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The #MeToo movement has opened the floodgates on stories of sexual harassment and assault in the media, tech, and entertainment industries, just to name a few. And, while those stories have fostered an important public conversation, there is still a long way to go. In tonight’s signature segment, NewsHour weekend’s Megan Thompson reports on the troubling stories of harassment and abuse taking place at thirty thousand feet, where there is often nowhere to turn.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Allison Dvaladze flies all around the world for her job with an international women’s cancer group. In April 2016, she took an overnight Delta Airlines flight from her hometown Seattle to Amsterdam. And the flight started off pretty ordinarily, Dvaladze ate dinner, put on a movie and fell asleep.

  • ALLISON DVALADZE:

    I awoke to a hand in my crotch. It was confusing at first. I didn’t have time to think about it. My reaction was, I hit his hand and yelled, ‘No.” And immediately his hand came back into my crotch. I hit it again as I was trying to undo my seatbelt and get out of my seat and then for the third time, as I’m still working to get away. He grabbed me as I was getting out of my seat.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Dvaladze managed to unbuckle her seatbelt and get out of her aisle seat. She then ran towards the back of the plane.

  • ALLISON DVALADZE:

    I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t explain right away what had happened.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    When she could speak, she talked to the flight attendants.

  • ALLISON DVALADZE:

    I feel that they were wanting to be supportive, but it was also clear that there was no clear procedure on how they should respond and what the protocol was for what to do next.

  • KATIE CAMPOS:

    It was absolutely terrifying.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Katie Campos of Buffalo, New York, tweeted about a similar experience on a United Airlines flight home from Newark in December. She was seated on the aisle and says the man next to her in the middle was visibly drunk. And he harassed and assaulted both her and the woman in the window seat.

  • KATIE CAMPOS:

    As we were going up into the air he grabbed my crotch. And he did it again and so I pushed his hand off again and said “Don’t touch me.” And then he did it again. And the third time I popped up and ran to the back of the plane.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In the last few years, there have been several accounts in the media of sexual assault on airplanes. Some recent incidents involve teenage girls. Others, high-profile women. Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and actress Anika Noni Rose recently recounted stories of their own.

    But it’s not clear how often it actually happens, because no federal agency collects data specifically on sexual harassment or assault on planes.

    The FBI has jurisdiction to investigate crimes on planes in American airspace, or involving US citizens. But it doesn’t classify sexual assaults separately from other crimes on planes. It did tell PBS NewsHour Weekend, that it investigated 63 sexual assaults on planes in fiscal year 2017, up from 38 three years earlier.

    Mike Adams served as an FBI agent for 26 years, including nearly 5 years at Seattle’s international airport. He says he saw at least one of these cases every month. Adams says they were almost always perpetrated by men on night-time flights.

  • MIKE ADAMS:

    Because on those flights typically in-flight crews will dim the lights or turn the lights down. For the most part the victims are females of all ages. Oftentimes they’re seated in the window seat in a way, it gives the assailant the feeling that they have their victim trapped.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    If an assault happens in international airspace, or abroad, jurisdiction can get complicated. Technically, the nation where the airline is registered has jurisdiction. But the nation where the plane lands could also prosecute. Mike Adams says, sexual assault cases rarely even get that far because there are often no witnesses and no evidence.

  • MIKE ADAMS:

    Which makes it very difficult to solve these types of crimes. You need facts, circumstances and evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Sara Nelson is a United Airlines flight attendant and President of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing 50,000 cabin crew. A survey of nearly 2,000 of them last year found that 20% had received reports of assault between passengers. And Nelson believes the number could be rising.

  • SARA NELSON:

    We have seats closer together. We have airplanes that are fuller than ever. Flight attendant staffing has been reduced to minimums, so we have anywhere from 25% to 50% fewer flight attendan ts on the plane than we did ten years ago. And more people to watch.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But that’s only half the story. Nelson says, flight attendants themselves are regularly the targets of harassment and assault.

  • SARA NELSON:

    Because the industry had originally defined flight attendants as sex objects. And that had never been denounced. And so there’s this undertone when people come to the airplane that flight attendants are there for their enjoyment, or are objects. It is not uncommon to have someone try to get your attention by touching your rear end, up to and including some really aggressive behavior, pulling flight attendants on to their laps.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Have you experienced this yourself?

  • SARA NELSON:

    I have experienced assault on the plane, yes. In all those ways that I talk about. I’ve also experienced someone actually groping me on the plane. And it is really scary. It’s very scary.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Are there any official protocols that the airlines have for you when something like this happens to you?

  • SARA NELSON:

    So in my 22 years as a flight attendant, I have never experienced a conversation or any training points about how to deal with sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Never?

  • SARA NELSON:

    Never. Not one time.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And when it comes to passenger-on-passenger sexual assault, 86% of nelson’s union members surveyed said they were uncertain of, or had no knowledge of, guidance- separate from general policies on disruptive passengers.

    United Airlines told PBS NewsHour Weekend, “We encourage our customers to always report incidents of sexual harassment to our onboard crew-members, who are trained to address these situations immediately, including calling for law enforcement to meet the aircraft upon arrival.” But when pressed for specifics on sexual assault and harassment protocols, United did not respond.

    When asked the same question, Delta Airlines gave examples of several situations that crew members are trained to handle, which include harassment and assault.

    Other airlines also said crew are trained to reassign seats and notify law enforcement.

    American Airlines and Alaska Airlines did say they have plans to improve procedures with Alaska saying, ”We will begin using scenarios of sexual assault in our crew training this year.”

    One airline, Spirit, wouldn’t comment at all.

  • KATIE CAMPOS:

    And I panicked and just said look I’m not going back there.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Katie Campos felt the crew on her United flight didn’t do enough. She says a flight attendant first told her to go back to her seat. When Campos refused, the crew moved her and the other woman in her row -but to seats directly behind the perpetrator, who harassed them until they landed.

  • KATIE CAMPOS:

    And this man continued to turn around and grab for us and stick out his tongue sexually. United has told me even since then that they followed protocol. And if this is their protocol that is absolutely terrifying and not safe for passengers in the air.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But Campos says, to their credit, the United crew called for law enforcement to meet the plane. She is pressing charges and says several passengers witnessed the assault.

    In a statement to PBS NewsHour Weekend about Campos’s case, United said, “we reached out to speak directly with her and apologized to her and her family for their experience.”

    Allison Dvaladze also felt Delta Airlines hadn’t trained its crew properly to respond to the assault. She says they asked her to return to her seat for landing, which she refused. And, she says, one flight attendant told her to let the incident roll off her back. Others asked what she wanted them to do.

  • ALLISON DVALADZE:

    There needs to be a procedure on how to address this in a more standardized way because it is true, it is very hard in that moment to think about what to do. And what I was looking for is for someone who knew what to do, and could handle the situation for me.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    She says the crew told her they would write a report. So a week later she emailed to follow up. A month later, a Delta employee replied, and offered her 10,000 miles to ease her “frustration and inconvenience” and wrote, “I know it’s not fair when one person’s behavior affects another person.” Dvaladze replied, “This is called sexual assault. … it is not ‘not fair,’ it is illegal.”

    She says Delta eventually told her by phone it had no record of an incident on her plane, and she should contact law enforcement. She called the FBI but she has no witnesses, and doesn’t even know the man’s name, because he’d switched seats and, to her knowledge, no one asked him for identification.

    In a statement to PBS NewsHour Weekend, Delta said “we continue to be disheartened by the original event Ms. Dvaladze’s described. We take all accounts of sexual assault very seriously and conduct routine reviews of our processes to ensure the safety and security of our customers remains a top priority.”

  • ALLISON DVALADZE:

    We have to start addressing these issues and hitting them head on

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Allison Dvaladze has decided to take action on her own. She started a Facebook page, is calling on airlines for change, and told her story to her US senator, Washington’s Patty Murray.

  • PATTY MURRAY:

    I just like, “You gotta be kidding me. This isn’t happening.”

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Murray introduced a bill with Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania that will require airlines to train for flight attendants on how to handle sexual assault and harassment, collect data on the incidents and establish procedures for reporting harassment and assault to the authorities.

  • PATTY MURRAY:

    The problem is that people believe that, or felt that you’re up in the air, you’re kind of on your own. If you’re up in the air, you’re in our country. You have a right to be protected. You have a right to have a process. You have a right to be treated with dignity. The laws apply to you.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Both Katie Campos and Allison Dvaladze must travel for work, and both say flying now makes them nervous. Dvaladze has had panic attacks on planes and says she always puts a book or computer in her lap when she sleeps. But, she has no plans to stop flying -or stop speaking out until she sees things change.

  • ALLISON DVALADZE:

    If I can change the way that this is being addressed, if I can get airlines to put in place policies and so this doesn’t happen to other people, then that will be a success.

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