#MeToo in the Air

#MeToo in the Air

A national discussion on sexual assault and sexual harassment is taking place - and now is the time to do everything we can to eradicate this from our workplace.

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We call on the entire airline industry to step up to combat harassment and recognize the impact it has on safety. With Flight Attendants reporting that they often deal with harassment by avoiding further interaction with abusive passengers, airlines must also ensure that staffing levels on flights are sufficient to allow this strategy to work.

AFA also calls on the flying public to take part in demanding an environment that provides Flight Attendants the respect and dignity they need to do their jobs, protect passengers, and serve as aviation’s first responders.

Survey Reveals Widespread Harassment of Flight Attendants

More than 3,500 flight attendants from 29 U.S. airlines participated in the survey. Demographics of participants include gender ratios consistent with national averages of 80 percent women to 20 percent men. Key findings include:

  • 68% of flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.

  • 35% experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers in the last year. Of those, 68% faced it three or more times, and a third five or more times in the past year.

    Flight attendants describe the verbal sexual harassment as comments that are “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive, and dirty.” They also report being subjected to passengers’ explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, request for sexual “favors” and pornographic videos and pictures.

    The most common response to passenger verbal harassment, by order of frequency, are to avoid further interaction with the passenger, ignore the harassment, or diffuse/deflect the situation.

  • 18% experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers in the last year. More than 40% of those suffered physical abuse three or more times.

    Flight attendants said the physical sexual harassment included having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area “touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed, and fondled” both on top of and under their uniforms. Other abuse included passengers cornering or lunging at them followed by unwanted hugs, kisses and humping.

    The most common response to passenger physical harassment, by order of frequency, is to avoid further interaction with the passenger, address the harassment directly with the passenger, ignore it, or attempt to diffuse/deflect the situation.

  • Only 7% of the flight attendants who experienced the abuse have reported sexual harassment to their employer.

  • 68% of flight attendants say they have not noticed any employer efforts over the past year to address sexual harassment at work. Alaska, United, and Spirit have led the industry in addressing this issue.

Read the entire results >

Passenger on Passenger Sexual Assault Survey Findings

In response to Congressional request to understand Flight Attendants’ perspectives and experiences with on-board passenger on passenger sexual assault, AFA EAP created and reported the findings of a seven (7) question Flight Attendant survey. A total of 1,929 responses were recorded during the one month time frame in 2017 that the survey was available. Summary findings include:

  • One out of five responding flight attendants has experienced a report of passenger on passenger sexual assault while working a flight.
  • The most common action taken by an intervening Flight Attendant was to physically separate the passengers and notify all flying partners.
  • Law enforcement was contacted or met the plane less than half of the time.
  • Most intervening actions taken must have been due to the resourcefulness of the intervening involved Flight Attendants as the overwhelming majority of responders report no knowledge of written guidance and/or training on this specific issue available through their airline.

Op-Ed: In the Air, Renounce a sexist past

AFA wrote in a recent Op-Ed in The Washington Post, "Our union was formed to give women a voice and to beat back discrimination and misogyny faced on the job. We defined our careers at the bargaining table, in the courts and on Capitol Hill." But the industry never denounced that era and it is time to stamp it out for good. No more "Coffee, Tea, or Me."

Industry Action

Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden took the opportunity to learn from an event on an Alaska plane for reflection and work with AFA Flight Attendant leaders at Alaska to address this issue in meaningful way. Alaska has continued to support Flight Attendants who have called out inappropriate behavior by passengers. Read Tilden's public letter >

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz immediately responded to our Op-Ed with a public letter to all of United’s employees. In the letter, that is worth a full read, Oscar definitively states, “When you join the United team, or when you board a United flight, you can be sure that by doing so you are expressing your support of a company that backs up our words with our actions...We have a special responsibility to [Flight Attendants] to ensure they can do their essential work in the most positive environment possible. There is no place for sexual harassment at United, and I am asking that you all join with me in making a commitment to zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any of our colleagues and customers.”

Spirit Airlines CEO Bob Fornaro sent a letter to all Spirit employees on the issue of harassment. It reads in part, "While we are proud of our efforts, safety is even more than that. It’s also about how we treat each other. I was brought up to treat every individual I meet with courtesy, fairness and respect. As a service business, I believe it is critical to our future that we keep those values central at Spirit. That is why, for the safety and well-being of our Guests and Team Members, Spirit Airlines and our leadership team will not tolerate any form of harassment, including sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, or any other demeaning or offensive conduct. We promote inclusion, equality and professionalism whether in our offices and crew rooms, on
our planes and ramps, or at our ticket counters. We want all our Guests to feel safe and welcome when they travel on us, and our Team Members to feel safe and secure in our workplace. This is everyone’s responsibility." Read the letter >

AFA continues to call on all other airlines to follow Alaska's and United's lead to help end sexual harassment and spread the message through aviation that everyone has an equal seat at the table.

Congressional Action

FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (.pdf)

On October 5, 2018, a 5-year FAA bill became law. Included in the law are three action items to address sexual misconduct.

  • Congressional Focus on Addressing Sexual Misconduct on Planes
  • Establish National Inflight Sexual Misconduct Task Force
  • Require DOJ to Establish Reporting Process for Sexual Misconduct

AFA Testified Before Congress on Combating Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Air

AFA International President Sara Nelson testified before the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues on combating sexual harassment and assault in the service sector on March 19, 2018. 

“Flight Attendants, about 80 percent women, are ongoing victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. 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...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. Like the rest of our society, flight attendants have never had reason to believe that reports of the sexual harassment we experience on the job would be taken seriously, rather than dismissed or retaliated against,” Nelson said in her testimony. Read more >

Congress Directs DOT to Establish InFlight Sexual Assault Task Force

As part of the omnibus spending bill passed on March 23, 2018, Congress directed the Department of Transportation to establish the National InFlight Sexual Assault Task Force "to provide recommendations to the Secretary [of Transportation] on best practices and protocols for air carriers relating to training, reporting, and data collection." Read the full language > 

AFA Applauds DeFazio’s Move to Address Sexual Harassment in Transportation

Congress should move quickly on this legislation to give clear instruction to every executive, worker and traveler on all modes of transportation that sexual harassment is not something we tolerate as a country. Learn more about the bill >

Frankel, Comstock Request Action to Combat Sexual Harassment in Airline Industry

Congresswomen Lois Frankel (D-FL-21) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) sent a letter to 30 airline executives requesting they take immediate action to address sexual harassment in the industry among flight attendants and passengers. Members are asking these industry leaders to publicly denounce sexual harassment, reinforce the role of flight attendants as safety professionals, and work with the Association of Flight Attendants to put in place policies to address this systemic issue. Read the letter >

AFA Resources

If you have something to share, please let us know at issues@afacwa.org or share with your AFA Local Council. And, if any of us needs confidential support and assistance, please use AFA EAP as your resource. Call 800-424-2406 for assistance.

AFA EAP: Protecting Yourself from Sexual Violence >

Solidarity Center: End Gender-Based Violence at Work >

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