On July 23, an unaccompanied minor was sexually assaulted on a United Airlines flight. In order to raise awareness and promote safety, her family wishes to alert the public about incidents that have taken place on United flights, as well as lessons that can be learned from the victim’s experience on United 1695.
The Young Girl’s Sexual Assault
The following facts appear in a criminal complaint filed in US District Court:
- “On or about July 23, 2017 Defendant … was seated next to a minor female passenger (the ‘Victim’).”
- “Some time into the flight, the victim fell asleep.”
- “While [the Victim] was sleeping, Defendant…put his hand on her groin and inner thigh, and began rubbing the Victim through her clothing … [and] also tried to put his other hand inside of the Victim’s pants.”
- Defendant “did knowingly engage in sexual contact, as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2246(3), with a minor female…with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, and arouse and gratify the sexual desire of another person.”
- “The Victim immediately reported Defendant…to a flight attendant and asked to be moved to another seat because Defendant…had touched her. The Victim was moved to another seat.”
The young girl, who was traveling to a selective leadership program to which she had been accepted at Princeton University, sat in her seat crying. Apart from granting the young victim’s request to move away from the man that had sexually assaulted her, upon information and belief, United did little other than offer her some airline food or peanuts. Most appallingly, upon information and belief, no one from United reported the allegations of assault to the pilot or to law enforcement. United allowed the perpetrator of the crime, who maintains citizenship abroad and could have fled the United States, to leave the plane without so much as answering a question or giving a statement. It wasn’t until the young girl called her mother once she exited the plane that law enforcement was notified in response to the mom’s phone calls. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the perpetrator of the crime had already exited the airport.
United’s abdication of responsibility is shocking. United undeniably knew that one of its customers, a child, had claimed to have suffered sexual assault during one of its flights. Without question, United should have contacted law enforcement. Had it done so, FBI agents (which have jurisdiction over crimes committed in the air) could have met the young girl, her attacker, and possible witnesses at the door of the airplane when it landed to ensure the claim was investigated and that a young girl would have been protected and supported. Because of United’s failure, the perpetrator of the crime was not apprehended until the next day.
United simply ignored the problem, leaving a young girl alone and frightened, tears in her eyes, 32,000 feet in the air and thousands of miles away from home.
Flying The Uncaring Skies
Unfortunately, United’s treatment of the victim’s sexual assault is consistent with recent incidents, all of which paint the portrait of a company that is callous and indifferent to the suffering of its passengers.
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 made waves in March of this year, 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.
Again in April of this year, 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 April, 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.
Most recently, in May of this year, 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 the most recent case involving the sexual assault, United has once again failed to live up to those promises.
The UNITED 1-6-95 Safety Alert
To be clear: in this case, there is nothing the young victim could have done or should have done to prevent this. Zero blame rests with the young girl; she did everything right and is a victim. Culpability rests squarely on the perpetrator and United for its inaction – period. The family trusted United and United failed at every step of the way. Because United has abdicated its responsibilities, below are a few items passengers should evaluate when considering whether to fly United:
1: #1 Point to Remember: The Victim is Not to Blame. The most important thing to remember is that the victim is not to blame. Contrary to the alleged actions of United in the July of 2014 case noted above – where United reportedly sent a letter to a young girl citing her “extremely short shorts” – victims of sexual assault are never to blame for the actions of predators.
6: 6 Lessons from this Case and Other Alleged Sexual Assaults on United Flights. This matter involving United Airlines, as well as previous alleged incidents on the carrier, suggest the following tips to keep passengers safe on United flights:
Unaccompanied minors should not be presumed to be safe:
The child victim in this case boarded a United flight believing she could trust the company. As outlined above, she was wrong. 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. This should be done automatically, but as the United incident at hand demonstrates, upon information and belief, the flight attendant failed to take this action.
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 the incidents involving United above, predators often acted when victims were sleeping. If it can be avoided, save the sleep for when you land.
95: 95% is a frighteningly common number with sexual assault. Statistics surrounding sexual assaulted in the US are frightening – including in context outside of these United claims. As an example:
- 95 seconds: An American is sexually assaulted just over once every 95-100 seconds.
- 95% have PTSD: 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.
- 95% unreported: 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).