Silicon Valley executive Randi Zuckerberg described a recent Alaska Air flight during which a male passenger constantly made sexually explicit comments to her. The airline has suspended the man’s travel privileges while it investigates.

Share story

Alaska Airlines scrambled Thursday to investigate a complaint of sexual harassment on one of its flights that went viral on social media.

Randi Zuckerberg, a Silicon Valley executive, described Wednesday how, on an Alaska flight that day, a male passenger constantly made sexually explicit and lewd comments to her and others in the first-class section while being served multiple alcoholic drinks — and that flight attendants had dismissed her complaints.

Zuckerberg, who is the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a former executive at that company, wrote a letter detailing her experience to Alaska’s top management and posted it on Facebook.

“Feeling furious, disgusted and degraded after an Alaska Airlines flight during which the passenger next to me made repeated lewd, inappropriate, and offensive sexual remarks to me,” Zuckerberg posted.

Two Alaska executives called Zuckerberg on Wednesday night to express their concern, prompting her to update her post with a comment that she is “thankful that they are taking the situation seriously.”

The airline also suspended the male passenger’s travel privileges while it investigates further. But during the flight from Los Angeles to Mazatlán, Mexico, Zuckerberg found little support even though she and her female colleague both reported the man’s behavior to the flight attendants.

According to the account she posted on Facebook, before the plane even departed the gate, the man started talking to her about touching himself, asked her if she fantasized about her traveling companion and then provided vulgar commentary about the women who walked by him as they boarded.

She said the crew responded to her complaints by saying that the man was a frequent flyer and brushed off his behavior as “oh, he just doesn’t have a filter.”

During the three-hour flight, the man was given multiple alcoholic drinks, she said, and continued to harass her the entire time. His comment on all the sexual-harassment news in the media was that “these millennial women” just aren’t willing any longer to trade sex for a job.

At one point, Zuckerberg said, a flight attendant stopped by the man’s seat and said with a laugh, “Are you behaving today?”

She said a flight attendant offered to move her to another seat in the back of the plane, but she declined. “Why is it the woman that needs to switch seats in this situation? Shouldn’t he have been thrown off the plane?!” she said.

Andrea Schneider, vice president of people at Alaska Airlines, said Thursday that the company cannot comment on the details of the incident until it has completed an investigation, including interviews with crew members and other passengers seated nearby.

But what Zuckerberg described “is really disturbing to us,” Schneider said. She said she is not aware of sexual harassment on board being “a hugely common thing.” But because awareness of the issue has suddenly escalated, she expects it will now get much more attention.

Schneider said Alaska’s flight attendants “by and large do an amazing job addressing a myriad of situations in a really, really professional and competent way,” and are trained to handle in-flight disturbances and to de-escalate tensions in a variety of situations.

Yet as a result of the current heightened awareness of sexual harassment, “we may learn there is an opportunity to do more focused training,” Schneider said.

“We are going to be listening and learning, and do everything we possibly can to ensure everyone feels safe and comfortable on our planes,” she added.

The incident is more than an Alaska Airlines problem, according to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants — CWA union.

“It is a critical time for the airline industry to examine the steps necessary to take this on and lift the veil on the issue,” Nelson said in a statement. “For too long unacceptable sexual innuendo, harassment advances, and assault have been a silent epidemic in our society and certainly on our planes.”

She said a union survey last year showed that the majority of flight attendants lack guidance or training from the airlines on how to handle sexual harassment.

“The industry and regulators need to come together to develop policies and tools to respond to these incidents on board,” she said. “And industry leaders need to speak out clearly with a zero-tolerance policy.”

Diane Tucker, a San Francisco-based flight attendant at another airline, said the behavior described by Zuckerberg is “absolutely unacceptable.”

Tucker, who has almost 50 years’ experience as a flight attendant, said she occasionally has had to deal with such harassment among passengers. She said flight attendants are required to inform the pilots of any troubling behavior in the passenger cabin, whether physical or verbal, and to take advice from the pilots.

“We’re given a lot of leeway,” Tucker said. “If you are a customer, I will treat you as a guest, as I would treat a guest in my house. But once your behavior becomes unacceptable, if you were a guest in my house, I’d ask you to leave.

“We have enough flexibility to go to the individual and say, ‘unless you want the police to meet this flight and have you arrested, you better behave yourself,’ ” she said. “If it’s really egregious, we ask for permission to land and have that person taken off the plane.

“And we’ve done that,” she added. “It’s really unpleasant.”

Allegations of sexual misconduct

Since The New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in October, multiple men in Hollywood, politics and media have faced allegations ranging from sexual misconduct to rape. Here's a list of some of the people who have been accused.

How have sexual harassment and the #MeToo conversation affected you?

We want to hear your thoughts. Whether you work in tech, government, media, finance, the arts or another field, has sexual harassment or sexism affected you or the culture you work in? Are you becoming more cautious with co-workers or other people in your life?  

She said the most surprising thing about Zuckerberg’s account is her assertion that the man’s behavior was known to be problematic from previous flights.

“That astounds me,” Tucker said. “It only takes a few complaints for someone to be put on a no-fly list.”

Tucker said that in the course of her career, the job has evolved from “stewardess” to “safety professional.” She sees handling harassment as part of the safety protocol. And she welcomes society’s newfound focus on standing up to harassment.

“There’s a lot going on in the country right now, with women having no tolerance whatever for offensive behavior,” she said. “I have never tolerated it.”

Cases of sexual harassment, assaults and misconduct on planes are not collected in a centralized database, making it difficult to determine how frequently they occur. The FBI conducted 58 investigations of reported sexual assault on planes from January to September 2016, up from 40 during all of 2015, according to the bureau.

Andrew Maloney, a lawyer who specializes in aviation law, said that based on Zuckerberg’s account of the episode, Alaska Airlines could be held liable in a lawsuit. He said it appeared the airline failed to protect her from the passenger.

“Passengers have a right to feel secure, and airlines have a legal duty to protect passengers from harassment, especially if they are aware that a passenger is being harassed,” Maloney said. “Once Ms. Zuckerberg told flight attendants about this man’s behavior, they should have moved him to a different seat or ejected him from the airplane.”