Raising Awareness: The Skies Above & Beyond #MeToo
In this era of “#MeToo,” the important issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment have gained heightened awareness, especially as it applies to social norms and behavior in the workplace as high-profile men and women in fields as diverse as entertainment, media and politics have been exposed as sexual predators, and Time Magazine’s “person of the year” in 2017 was The Silence Breakers.
One especially vile occurrence that is widely underreported, however, is the sexual harassment and abuse that is inflicted upon women aboard airline flights.
FBI Warns Summer Travelers
According to the FBI, in 2014, airline passengers reported 38 instances of sexual assaults on flights – and that number jumped to 63 instances in 2017. In response, the FBI is warning travelers flying this summer, especially on long overnight flights. And while many people may feel embarrassed and uncomfortable reporting such incidents, the FBI and law enforcement agencies urge passengers to report such incidents immediately, so that officials can effectively investigate and prosecute these type of cases. According to Brian Nadeau, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore Division, sexual assault on an airplane falls within the FBI’s jurisdiction and is a federal crime that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Flying The Uncaring Skies
These type of incidents may go underreported as victims may be ashamed or blame themselves. Reporting the incident to a flight attendant, however, is necessary, even though flight attendants do not always have clear guidelines as how to handle thee type of complaints. Unfortunately, what is clear is the need to raise awareness, as airlines such as United have a very poor track record over the past several years when it comes to sexual assault and harassment on their flights.
In July of 2014, a teenage girl alleged that a man groped her breasts. The girl’s mother claims she reported the incident to a United flight attendant and asked to be moved but was told that she and her daughter needed to return to their seats. According to one article, “In a letter seen by News Corp, United denied the allegations and suggested that [the girl] was to blame.” Shockingly, the Telegraph reported that the letter stated, “your daughter wore extremely short shorts…You have provided no evidence of any negligence on the part of United regarding this matter.”
In May of 2016, while a woman was flying on United flight 960 from Newark to Germany, she alleged she was sexually assaulted by the male passenger seated beside her.  Because it was an overnight flight, the woman decided to take a nap. While she was sleeping, and the cabin lights were off, the man draped a blanket over himself and her. He then proceeded to grab and hold her breast. She promptly alerted the flight attendants and after some time, she was moved to a different seat. She recalled that the flight attendants tried to appease her with free food and wine. Other than these token gestures, United did nothing and they notified no one. The alleged perpetrator walked off the plane with complete impunity.
United also waves when it demanded a small girl, estimated to be 10 years old, change clothes before it would allow her to board a plane with her father, a company employee. The girl’s leggings were deemed inappropriate and a violation of the company’s dress standards. United forced the girl to put on an additional dress over her clothes before it would allow her and her family to board.
In another incident, a 12-year-old girl flying United from Newark to Phoenix alleged that she was groped by the passenger seated next to her. She reported the incident to the flight attendants, who offered her travel vouchers. She reported that the flight attendants did not notify law enforcement and, once the plane landed, the perpetrator exited the plane and presumably left the airport. 
Most famously in terms of media coverage, United decided to remove a paying passenger, Dr. David Dao, from one of its flights to make room for its commuting crew members.When Dr. Dao refused to be bumped from the seat he had already taken, United recruited the Chicago police to forcibly remove Dr. Dao, who suffered a concussion, broken nose, and lost teeth as he was dragged down the aisle. United initially told the press and employees that Dr. Dao had been “disruptive and belligerent,” but videos taken by passengers suggested otherwise.
And yet, once again, a female passenger flying alone on United alleged that the passenger next to her groped her while she was sleeping. The female passenger reported the incident to the flight attendants, who moved her, but did not notify the authorities.
In the wake of these scandals, United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz told the world that United would treat them as a turning point. “Our actions will speak louder than our words,” he said. “We will do better,” he promised. United has long promised that its passengers would “Fly the Friendly Skies.” In most cases involving the sexual assault, however, United has seemingly failed to live up to those promises.
Important Tips To Keep You And Your Family Members Safe While Flying
Unaccompanied minors should not be presumed to be safe:
- Based on United’s conduct, parents cannot assume that unaccompanied minors will be safe on the carrier’s flights, and so these tips should be shared with them prior to flying.
Night flights: Predators often use the cover of darkness on night flights when cabin lights are off to attack victims. Avoid night flights when possible.
Illumination and blankets: If it’s not possible to avoid a night flight, turn on the reading light. Avoid use and beware of the placement of blankets or other draping objects. Predators have used blankets and jackets to conceal their crimes.
Tell flight crew (and ask to report to pilot): If you notice anyone behaving in an inappropriate manner, tell a flight attendant or member of the flight crew. Additionally, request that flight attendants report the information to the pilot.
Enlist other passengers: If a flight attendant is not in the area, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of others to support you – particularly if an unaccompanied minor is involved.
Don’t sleep: In many incidents, predators often acted when victims were sleeping. If it can be avoided, save the sleep for when you land, and limit the amount of alcohol and sleeping aides you take while flying.
Raising Awareness Is Critical
Statistics surrounding sexual assaulted in the US are frightening – including in context outside of airline incidents. As an example:
- An American is sexually assaulted just over once every 95-100 seconds.
- Nearly 95% of women who are sexually assaulted by rape experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the incident.
- Even in the context of sexual assault by rape instances on college campuses, 95% go unreported, according to one study.
If you have been a victim of a crime, report it to law enforcement immediately. You may also learn more about sexual assault at RAINN.org, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
 https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence (precise statistics suggest every 98 seconds).