The Association of Flight Attendants, which conducted the survey, cited Alaska, United and Spirit as airlines that are beginning to address the problem.
Last year, a few high-profile incidents on airplanes highlighted the problem of sexual assaults of airline passengers. A new survey of flight attendants indicates that cabin crews also regularly endure sexual harassment and assault by abusive passengers.
“It happens every day,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the 50,000-member union that conducted the survey. “Not on every flight, but every day in the airline industry, flight attendants are dealing with this issue.”
In an interview, Nelson called for airlines to work to eradicate sexual misconduct on planes by setting up reporting procedures and training, and for airline CEOs to send a clear message that they intend to “change the culture in aviation.”
“Harassment of flight attendants is legendary, but this survey shows just how commonplace it remains even during the #MeToo era,” said Nelson. “It’s time for all of us — airlines, unions, regulators, legislators and passengers — to put a stop to behaviors that can no longer be condoned.”
While Nelson applauded three airlines — Alaska, United and Spirit — that have begun to take steps to address the problem, she said the rest of the industry has remained silent despite what the survey indicates is extensive and routine abuse throughout the business.
More than 3,500 flight attendants at 29 U.S. airlines responded to the AFA survey. Of those, more than two-thirds said they have experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.
More than one in three of the flight attendants who responded said they’ve experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers in the past year, with comments and propositions they described variously as nasty, crude and suggestive. And nearly one in five experienced physical harassment, including having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area groped, both on top of and under their uniforms.
Late last year, Silicon Valley executive Randi Zuckerberg was sexually harassed on an Alaska Airlines flight from Los Angeles. The problem was further highlighted by the story of Allison Dvaladze, who had been assaulted on a Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam in 2016 and who this year sued the airline.
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The CEOs of Alaska, United and Spirit each released letters to employees and the public indicating that such behavior would not be tolerated. Nelson said all three are working with the AFA and putting resources toward improving their policies, their reporting procedures and their training.
In an update last month, Alaska chief executive Brad Tilden said the Seattle-based airline has begun training for all employees aimed at preventing sexual harassment and assault and is developing onboard resources to clarify how passengers can support one another and the cabin crews.
“Sexual harassment and assault have absolutely no place in our workplace, on board our flights, or any place,” Tilden wrote in a blog post on Alaska’s website. ” The broader the effort, the better we’ll foster a society in which all people are treated well.”
Nelson said such messages from the top “are critically important for any change in culture.” She said other airlines have not been so responsive and the industry’s history of “overt misogyny” has never been denounced.
“The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the problems of sexual assaults by passengers on other passengers is closely related to the assaults on cabin crew. Part of what emerged from cases such as Dvaladze’s on the Delta flight is that flight crews typically had no definitive policy to respond and no clear procedure for reporting these incidents of abuse of passengers.
National Sexual Assault HotlineRAINN operates a free and confidential hotline for sexual assault survivors at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). There is also an online chat option here.
The same applied to flight attendants, who in many cases have dealt with personal harassment only by avoiding the offending passenger and not even reporting it, Nelson said. But now that flight attendants are expected to be the enforcers who respond appropriately to victimization of passengers, they need the same protection for themselves.
She said the AFA wants to create a culture on flights where sexual misbehavior is known to be unacceptable and will have consequences. “We need to talk about this as disgusting behavior that will not be tolerated,” she said.
Nelson said she’s encouraged that a bill in Congress calling for a stakeholder panel to come up with best practices to address the problem, a bill advanced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has won the attention of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“We did hear from Secretary Chao that she intends to get moving on this,” Nelson said. “We haven’t yet seen evidence of movement.”
In addition to clear public statements from airline CEOs and the introduction of policies and training for flight crews, she said future actions could also include education of passengers through signs at check-in, public-service announcements at airports and statements about respectful conduct tucked into in-flight safety briefings.
Last month, the FBI issued an alert to the public and placed posters at airports that read: “Be Air Aware: Sexual Assault on Aircraft is a Federal Crime.”
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