Airlines cannot continue to let passengers accused of groping women on flights walk off a plane with no investigation or follow up.
Women should have the confidence that they can fly safely on an airplane without being sexually harassed or assaulted. When that doesn’t happen, airlines should not react with silence or a shrug.
Yet as detailed in a story by Times reporter Dominic Gates, airlines do not report all in-flight sexual assaults to authorities on the ground. Nor are flight attendants always well-trained on how to deal with such situations.
As a result, airline passengers who grope their seatmates without their consent may walk off a plane and never face consequences for their actions. Such situations are “quite common,” a retired FBI special agent formerly assigned to Sea-Tac Airport told The Times.
Randi Zuckerberg, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, recently questioned how airlines handle such incidents after she said Alaska Airlines crew members “brushed off” her complaints about a fellow passenger making lewd and sexually inappropriate comments. Other women have reported more serious sexual offenses committed by fellow passengers.
While dim lighting and sleeping witnesses may make it difficult to investigate allegations of sexual assaults on flights, airlines have an obligation to follow up on these incidents. Airlines keep passenger records that can easily identify who is onboard a plane and where they are sitting.
Flight attendants should also be trained how to properly respond to victims who report an in-flight assault. Temporarily moving a passenger who says she was assaulted, then asking her to move back to her original seat next to her accused assailant is unacceptable. Yet that is what passenger Allison Dvaladze said happened to her on a Delta Air Lines flight out of Seattle last year. She told the flight attendants that the stranger sitting next to her had grabbed her crotch.
Dvaladze said the crew members assured her they would file a report, but Delta officials later said they had no record of the incident.
A survey of nearly 2,000 flight attendants last year found that one out of five had dealt with complaints of sexual assault from passengers. Yet law enforcement was contacted in fewer than half those cases.
Such inconsistent reporting increases the possibility that sexual predators will continue to prey on airline passengers during future flights, or go on to assault women in other settings.
If airlines will not establish their own guidelines for reporting and handling sexual assaults, Congress should consider adopting mandatory rules. A sensible proposal from Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania would require flight attendants to be trained in how to treat victims of onboard sexual assaults, while requiring the reporting of such crimes.
Airlines owe it to their passengers to diligently respond to allegations of sexual misconduct during flights, as well as to report incidents to law enforcement after a plane lands.
Holding people accountable remains as important at 30,000 feet as it does on the ground.