Sexual Misconduct on Airlines Gets Its #MeToo Moment—or Does It?

Sexual Misconduct on Airlines Gets Its #MeToo Moment—or Does It?

May 10, 2019 - Congress created a task force to confront the industry’s harassment problem, but advocates worry it’s tilted in favor of management.

Author: Justin Bachman

May 10, 2019 - From Southwest’s “hostesses” in the 1970s to Hooters Air to the Vietnamese budget carrier whose flight attendants were made to wear bikinis, airlines have a long history of sexualizing the role of flight attendants. 

Their victimization continues to this day. More than a third of flight attendants said they had experienced sexual harassment over the past year, with almost one in five suffering physical assaults such as touching or groping, according to a 2018 survey of 3,500 attendants by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) union.

Last year, the #MeToo movement’s exposure of ghastly workplace behavior finally reached the airlines. As part of legislation funding the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress formed a task force aimed at addressing sexual misconduct up in the sky. Its goal was to review airline training and incident reporting so as to better protect employees and passengers.

“It needs to be that we have a zero-tolerance policy,” said Lyn Montgomery, a Southwest Airlines Co. flight attendant for the past 27 years. “You don’t get away with something in the air that you can’t on the ground.”

In November, the Trump administration put its stamp on the effort, shifting the 14-member task force under a four-person Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (ACPAC) that reports to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “The #MeToo movement seems to be making an impression in a lot of different areas,” said Judith Kaleta, the DOT’s deputy general counsel and the task force’s chair. “Organizations are putting new policies in place.”

Consumer advocates and flight attendants, however, accuse Chao of putting the task force squarely in the pocket of airline management. The DOT excluded consumer advocates and the AFA, which had focused on combating harassment, while putting a representative of an anti-regulation, pro-business group on the advisory committee overseeing the task force.

“Failing to include a genuine consumer representative with experience and expertise in consumer travel issues is yet another example of how the DOT is dedicated to the profits of the airline industry at the expense of consumers,” Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, a consumer-advocacy group, said in a statement.

Mixing alcohol with public incivility in a small enclosed space can create a hostile environment for anyone—but especially for flight attendants, who must interact with passengers. The purpose of the task force is to help standardize how illegal behavior is reported, since right now procedures vary by carrier, and even by incident. Another goal of the legislation was to facilitate industrywide crew training.

Corporate representatives of the airlines have praised the initiative. Allison Ausband, Delta Air Lines Inc.’s senior vice president for in-flight services, said we “totally changed our training” after the carrier began listening to flight attendants’ stories amid #MeToo news coverage. Ausband and Sharon Pinkerton, a senior vice president at Airlines for America, the airline industry’s Washington lobbyist group, represent the companies on the task force. (Delta isn’t part of the trade group.)

“This was a huge opportunity for us to make it safer for them and our customers by providing more training,” Ausband said. “The committee really is a platform for putting sexual assault under a microscope.”

In-flight sexual abuse cases fall under federal jurisdiction, and are thus subject to stiff penalties, including potential prison time. But the typical victim of sexual misconduct at 35,000 feet faces a bureaucratic obstacle course to seek criminal charges, according to flight attendants and consumer advocates.

Generally, a flight attendant must first notify the captain, who reports the incident to the airline’s dispatch staff, who then would call airport law enforcement agencies to meet the aircraft at its arrival gate, according to flight attendants. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the law enforcement agency that handles such incidents.

“It’s all based on the airline policy or the whim of the individual, and we think 90 percent of these things get lost in that daisy chain of reporting,” said Paul Hudson, president of, a passenger advocacy group. Once the plane lands and the passengers disperse, it’s too late, said Hudson, a former chief attorney for the New York State Crime Victims Board. “Speed is essential in these type of things.”

The current reporting system can be cumbersome for both victims and flight attendants, who need greater training, said Sara Nelson, president of the AFA, which has 50,000 members working at 20 airlines. The union, which has been seeking reform of airline policies on sexual misconduct, was excluded from the task force by Chao.

“If we had airports and airlines working together on this from the airport to the front of the airplane and back out to the cabin, it would be so much more effective,” said Nelson, a 23-year attendant with United. “Make it integrated into the entire operation.”

Perhaps the biggest disincentive for airlines to keep tabs of how attendants—or passengers—are sexually harassed or assaulted is that they don’t have to. There is no federal law requiring them to report incidents or keep records of complaints. This curbs the number of investigations, Hudson said.

“It’s fair to say that some incidents don’t get reported in a timely manner, which really hampers the ability of law enforcement to respond and investigate,” said Christopher Bidwell, a senior vice president of security at the Airports Council International-North America in Washington, a lobbyist organization for airports.

Still, some airlines are viewed by flight attendant unions as more responsive than others. The AFA has lauded Alaska Air Group Inc. for implementing a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and United Continental Holdings Inc. for public comments on the issue by its chief executive. Seattle-based Alaska was thrust into the #MeToo spotlight in late 2017 when former Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg, sister of founder Mark Zuckerberg, detailed her experience of being subjected to “explicit, lewd and highly offensive sexual comments” by another passenger on an Alaska flight to Mexico. 

FlyersRights has suggested to the FBI that it establish an Internet hotline for airline passengers’ sexual-assault reports, since most U.S. aircraft now have Wi-Fi, Hudson said. The organization has also sought FBI and Justice Department records on in-flight sex assault investigations and prosecutions.

Montgomery, the veteran Southwest flight attendant, also serves on the federal task force. She compares dealing with sexual harassment or assault to an onboard emergency, like when noxious fumes fill the cabin or a passenger falls ill. Flight attendants should act immediately based on their training, she said: “We want that to be as automatic when there is an incident of sexual misconduct.”

The AFA asked Chao to reconsider her decision to exclude the flight attendants union, North America’s largest, from the task force. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Nelson said. “We’ve done the deep work on it, to actually drive this issue.”

Kaleta, the task force’s chair, said the law allowed Chao discretion in choosing its members. “You may not have everyone at the table who thinks they should have been appointed,” she said in an interview. 

Consumer advocates, meanwhile, criticized Chao’s appointment of Frances Smith, a fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), as the task force’s consumer representative. The right-wing Washington organization, which was founded in 1984 by Smith’s husband, said it works to advance “the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.”

Smith is also a member of ACPAC, the advisory committee which oversees the task force. The committee will formulate recommendations for Chao based on a report by the task force, which is due in early October.

Chao spoke at the CEI’s annual dinner in June 2017, commending the group for its early support of transferring air traffic control from the FAA to a private organizations, an effort the U.S. airline industry has been pushing since the Obama administration.

The CEI declined to comment, referring questions about Smith to the DOT. An agency spokeswoman said Smith had worked to support consumer protection efforts and oversaw resolution of sexual harassment issues during her time “as a female manager in the financial services industry.” At an April 4 meeting of the advisory committee—its first—Smith said good policy requires extensive research and avoiding proposals that “look like quick fixes.”

“I think we have to look at the trade-offs,” Smith said. “We have to look at unintended consequences.”

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