Sexual assault of women on commercial flights happens regularly, yet victims often receive minimal support from airline staff and there are few prosecutions of perpetrators.
In April 2016, a few hours into a Delta night flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, Allison Dvaladze was just drifting to sleep when the stranger seated beside her slipped his hand between her legs and grabbed her crotch.
“It was totally, completely shocking to have that happen,” said Dvaladze, the director of strategy for an international women’s cancer program based at the University of Washington. “I’ve traveled for years. I never heard of this and never thought about it.”
Perhaps she’d never heard of it because sexual assaults on commercial flights often go unreported.
How to handle sexual assault on a commercial flight
• Though most of the time it won’t happen, be aware of the possibility, and watchful.
• You can minimize risk by booking an aisle seat. Most assaults happen in middle or window seats.
• If sending an unaccompanied minor on a flight, ask that they be booked in an aisle seat near a flight attendant station.
If it happens:
• Speak up loudly. Yell. Protest. Make sure others around you hear.
• Get up from the seat and tell the flight attendants.
• Ask the crew to notify the pilots and request that law enforcement meet the plane on landing.
• Insist upon either moving or having the alleged offender move so that you are no longer seated together.
Sources: Allison Dvaladze and retired FBI Special Agent Mike Adams
And the perpetrators — including Dvaladze’s assailant — regularly walk off the plane without consequence, according to Mike Adams, who for the past four years was the FBI special agent at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Adams, who retired Nov. 30, was notified of all such reported incidents on flights landing in Seattle.
Reacting to that day’s news story about the verbal abuse and sexual harassment suffered by Silicon Valley executive Randi Zuckerberg aboard an Alaska Airlines flight, Adams spoke of “the greater problem of groping and sexual misconduct that occurs on commercial flights.”
He said sexual assault is especially a problem on late evening and red-eye flights when the cabin lights are dimmed.
“It’s quite common. Many women and, in some cases, teenage and adolescent children, are victims,” said Adams. “There are so many women out there, being touched in their crotch, touched on their breasts, and no one is reporting on it.”
Last year the Association of Flight Attendants union surveyed its members on the subject. Among almost 2,000 flight attendants who responded, one out of five said they had dealt with complaints of sexual assault from passengers.
The survey found that law enforcement was contacted or met the plane less than half of the time.
Airline’s feeble response
Dvaladze’s experience on that Delta flight out of Seattle suggests why the problem is not more widely recognized.
When she immediately hit the arm of the man who touched her, he blocked her and grabbed again at her crotch. She struggled out of her seat, fumbling to disconnect her headphones and seat belt, and ran to the back of the plane, where she breathlessly told the flight attendants what had happened.
“They were trying to be supportive, but it was obvious they had no clear guidelines,” Dvaladze recalled. “They wanted me to tell them. They asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’”
One flight attendant remarked on how common it was for a woman to be touched inappropriately and said, “You have to let it roll off your back.”
The cabin crew asked a Delta employee spouse to switch with her and Dvaladze was reseated farther forward. The flight attendants said they would file a report and interview people around where she’d been sitting.
But the cabin lights were out and many passengers were wearing the masks supplied to cover their eyes and help them sleep. Nobody had seen anything.
“I couldn’t sleep the rest of the flight,” Dvaladze said. “I just wanted off the plane.”
When it was about time to land, the flight attendants came and told her she had to return to her original seat — beside her assailant. The Delta spouse wanted his seat back in order to exit the plane more quickly.
When the plane landed in Amsterdam, no one from law enforcement met the passengers, and the man who had assaulted her walked off the plane as if nothing had happened.
Dvaladze was en route to Africa for her work on improving management of breast cancer in less-developed countries and had to rush off for her connection to Kenya.
A week later, she emailed Delta from Nairobi to follow up on the report filed by the crew.
After 30 days, she got a reply offering her 10,000 SkyMiles, as a “small token in hopes of easing some of the frustration and inconvenience you may have felt.”
Dvaladze was incensed at the inadequacy of the response.
“Sorry, but it’s not about the miles. This is a crime,” she says now. “It’s not a lost bag or a missed connection. It’s illegal.”
Dvaladze said Delta eventually informed her by phone that it had no record of an incident on her flight.
In an emailed statement, a Delta spokesman said, “We continue to be disheartened by the events Ms. Dvaladze’s described.”
“We take all accounts of sexual assault very seriously and conduct routine reviews of our processes,” he added.
Flagrant cases get attention
Dvaladze’s experience led her to start a one-woman campaign to bring attention to what she soon realized is a recurring problem, and to push for some way to address it.
The issue became more prominent during last year’s election campaign when Jessica Leeds, 74, accused President Donald Trump of groping her aggressively while seated in first class on a flight to New York more than 30 years earlier.
(Trump angrily denied the accusation to a New York Times reporter.)
Dvaladze created a Facebook page that rapidly collected other stories from scattered press reports of culprits who were caught.
Among them: Earlier this year, Vijaykumar Krishnappa, 29, an India-born doctor, was arrested in New Jersey and admitted to groping a 16-year-old girl while she slept on a United flight from Seattle to Newark. Under a plea agreement, Krishnappa will serve between 30 and 90 days in prison after sentencing in January. Krishnappa, who was studying medicine in the United States on a fellowship for foreign doctors, accepted that he will likely be deported upon release.
Last year, a 26-year-old Oregon man, Chad Cameron Camp, pleaded guilty in Portland to sexual assault after a flight attendant witnessed him groping a 13-year-old girl traveling alone from Dallas on an American Airlines flight.
(American charges a fee of $150 each way when booking an unaccompanied minor to ensure the child is boarded onto the aircraft, chaperoned during connections and released to the appropriate person at the destination. But American’s website notes that “our flight attendants cannot continuously monitor an unaccompanied minor during their flight.”)
After protracted legal proceedings, Camp agreed to a plea agreement of 14 months, the time he’d already served in prison, followed by supervised release.
If you need helpNews reports of sexual-assault allegations could be a trigger for victims and survivors of abuse. Here are some resources:
- The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center offers a 24-hour resource line (888-998-6423). Additionally, KCSARC can help connect people with therapy, legal advocates and family services (kcsarc.org/gethelp).
- UW Medicine’s Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress (depts.washington.edu/hcsats) offers resources, including counseling and medical care. For immediate help, call 206-744-1600.
- For readers outside King County, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs lists 38 Washington state providers that offer free services. (wcsap.org/find-help)
- RAINN: Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network provides a free, confidential hotline (800-656-4673) and online chat (hotline.rainn.org) with trained staff members.
In October, California resident Jesse Salas, 23, pleaded guilty to assault after repeatedly groping and kissing a 16-year-old girl on an Alaska Airlines flight from Portland to Anchorage in June last year.
When the passenger on the other side of the girl saw what was happening and told a flight attendant, the pilot diverted the plane to Seattle, where Salas was arrested.
Prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of no more than 45 days in prison. Salas is to be sentenced in January.
Hard to prosecute
But former FBI agent Adams said such flagrant cases leading to prosecutions are rare. More typically, it’s hard to get evidence that will satisfy a court.
“When the lights are dimmed and no one is watching, it’s very difficult to prove,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get witnesses. Passengers in nearby seats, most of the time they’ll say they didn’t see anything. No one can really see what’s going on in a window seat.”
“Not all women will immediately report it, because it’s so shocking to them. They are stunned,” Adams said. “And when they do report it during the flight, the flight attendants don’t always know what to do. I’ve seen inconsistent responses by in-flight crews.”
“People need to understand that these women need to be heard, and they need to be believed,” he said.
Adams said that in his four years covering Seattle’s airport, he had reports of multiple incidents of sexual assault, but the Salas case is the only prosecution he’s aware of during that period in the Western Washington federal court district.
For authorities to even get word of an assault on a plane, there’s a lengthy chain of communication required: The incident must be reported by the victim to the flight attendants, by them to the pilot, then on to the airline’s operations center, then to airport police and finally to the FBI.
If a pilot heading to Sea-Tac Airport reports a sexual assault on board, Port of Seattle police would typically meet a plane upon landing and conduct interviews to assess if sufficient evidence of the crime exists.
If the assault didn’t happen in Washington state airspace, it’s a federal crime and they pass the report to the FBI to decide whether an investigation should be opened.
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams said the agency’s data tracks only those cases where a formal FBI investigation is conducted.
She said in 2016 there were 57 such investigations in the U.S., up from 40 the previous year. So far in 2017, there’ve been 63 investigations.
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In the case of Dvaladze’s assault, with Delta unable to find a record of the assault, it appears that the report from the plane to the ground never happened.
Adams recalled the case of a female college student in her early 20s flying from Seattle to a European city in 2016 for a monthlong study abroad program.
Well into the flight, she awoke to discover the man beside her had his hand under her bra.
She cried out, “What are you doing? Please stop!” The man apologized and pulled away. Then she noticed her jeans were unzipped and pulled down slightly.
She was so shocked, she didn’t know what to do and didn’t say anything to the flight attendants.
A month later, back home, she confided in a professor, who reported it to law enforcement and eventually Adams interviewed her.
Though he was convinced the story was true, the young woman just wanted the matter dropped.
“She didn’t want to pursue anything,” Adams said. “She didn’t want to have to deal with it ever again.”
No investigation was opened.
The rules on what airlines are legally liable for on international flights is governed by the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty that covers things such as lost baggage or a passenger’s physical injury or death.
But that treaty doesn’t make airlines liable for emotional damage or any molestation that doesn’t produce physical injury.
Dvaladze said that allows the airlines to avoid responsibility.
“I’m so frustrated that they brush it off and do nothing,” she said. “It keeps happening and nothing is done about it.”
Seeking action, she contacted Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who last year wrote a letter to the attorney general and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) signed by 22 U.S. senators.
The letter called for the FAA and representatives of the airlines, the flight-crew unions and other stakeholders to jointly develop federal rules and best practices for dealing with the problem.
In July, Murray and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced a bill, the SAFE Act (Stopping Assault while Flying Enforcement), that would mandate training of flight attendants in how to treat the victims of onboard sexual assault and would require reporting of such crimes and centralized collection of data.
The senators hope to insert the same requirements into the pending FAA reauthorization bill, which must pass by next March.
“It’s clear this Congress needs to act sooner rather than later to truly address this issue and make sure survivors get the support and help they deserve,” she said in an email.
The legislation will require Republican support to pass. All 22 senators who signed Murray’s letter were Democrats.
In the meantime, Adams said, female fliers should be aware that sexual assault on airplanes does happen.
“We’re not telling people to walk around scared,” he said. “But be watchful. That’s all. Just be aware.”
His advice? “What I tell my wife, my adult daughters, my sisters, my nieces, they all know from me, if flying they sit in the aisle seat,” he said.
And if something does happen, “Yell and scream and fend off the assailant. Get the attention of the flight crew,” Adams added. “Victims should insist on this being reported to the pilots and law enforcement at the destination.”