Airlines have no idea what to do when people are sexually assaulted on flights
Dana T. had never felt more excited about her life.
In April, she’d landed what she calls her “dream job,” working in sales at a global travel company. Like every other employee, she would need to attend training at the company’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany.
So on May 7 she arrived at the Newark, New Jersey, airport for her first-ever international flight. “I felt like the luckiest person in the world,” she told me.
When she found her seat on United Airlines Flight 960 to Frankfurt, Germany, she immediately took note of the man beside her, in the middle seat. “He was shaking his legs,” she says, “I thought from nervousness.” She hoped her neighbor’s restlessness wouldn’t keep her awake. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be jetlagged.’ I’d heard about that but never experienced it.” She drank two glasses of red wine with her meal and put on the longest movie she could find, The Revenant, to help herself drift off.
The next thing Dana remembers is groggily registering the man next to her, who had covered his lap with a blanket. He was gesturing toward his crotch and saying, “Lay on my lap.” “Since I was half asleep and clearly did not want to be disturbed, I just gave him a weird look and said, ‘Um no,’ ” Dana wrote in an email to me. (I am withholding her full last name to protect her privacy.) “I just thought the guy was weird.”
Later, the man woke her again; she glared at him and he seemed to back off. At this point, Dana recalls, the plane was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, the cabin lights were off, and everyone around them seemed to be asleep. She wasn’t sure of the hour, but she was exhausted and quickly drifted off again.
Then Dana jolted awake to a sharp pain. She jumped from her seat and sprinted down the darkened aisle.
“I think this man is touching me,” Dana says she told the first cluster of flight attendants she found: two men, one of whom was a German from United’s partner carrier Lufthansa, and one woman. The female attendant responded, “You think he is?” “No, no, he is, he is,” Dana said. But in her mind, Dana wondered, Why are you asking me like that?
How often do fliers—especially women traveling alone—have experiences like Dana’s on airplanes? And how do flight crews and airlines respond? These questions are surprisingly difficult to answer, but I spent two months trying, sending out requests for information that bounced between three different federal agencies and countless airport representatives.
There’s also the reality that most sexual assault victims don’t report, so even if the government tried to keep figures, it would be nearly impossible to get an accurate count. None of the U.S. airlines contacted for this story—United, American, JetBlue, Southwest, Delta, Frontier, Spirit, and Alaska—would share data about sexual assaults on their planes. United also declined to comment on Dana’s case. Lufthansa confirmed that Dana had reported an incident to United but could not comment further on her case.
Of course, the things that make female fliers targets—taking a red-eye; sleeping on said red-eye like everyone else—are basic elements of travel that shouldn’t be off-limits to half the population. Airlines, however, have few policies in place that suggest they feel responsible for managing the risks particular to women.
“I don’t believe this is being addressed, and I don’t believe it’s being addressed across the aviation industry,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told me. “We have general protocols for assault on the airplane,” she says, but “the training and protocols are lacking” when it comes to sexual assault in particular.
For the authorities to have met Dana’s plane and arrested her alleged assailant, the flight crew would have had to go to the pilots—the only people with the authority to radio the ground—who would in turn have had to decide that the incident merited a report. In extreme situations, if passengers or crew are in immediate danger, pilots can divert their flight, radioing down to the nearest airport for permission to land. But communication between cabin crew and captain isn’t always crystal clear, according to Poole. “The captain makes the call,” Poole says, and “there’s a big divider between us and them.”
LaRue Park has observed “some form of urgency that happens if it’s reported in the moment.” She would advise victims to “create the biggest scene possible in the middle of the act, so someone will look and you’ll have witnesses.” But, she says, “It just seems that cases, even without a witness, are taken a lot more seriously” if the crew calls from the air.
In the fundamental decision of whether to call down, as in all aspects of their response to sexual assault onboard, crews appear to be given little guidance—from the airlines or from the federal government. When I first contacted the FAA, spokesman Jim Peters referred me to the Transportation Security Administration.
“Each carrier decides how to implement the regulation, the FAA does not tell them how to do that,” Peters wrote, adding: “Generally, flight crews have wide discretion about whether to call law enforcement to meet an aircraft and the FAA does not have a requirement for flight crews to notify authorities when a passenger alleges a sexual assault during flight.”
In practice, it appears that crews’ responses vary widely. Goodfellow, the lawyer for the 13-year-old victim, connected me with an adult victim whose case he’s also representing. I’ll call his client Lorrie to protect her privacy; she’s still afraid of her alleged assailant. Lorrie was flying from London to Dallas on American Airlines in September when she was, she says, “stalked and harassed repeatedly by a deranged individual.”
At this point, after months of calls to the airline and the FBI, and of telling her “story story story, over and over again,” she says, close friends are advising her to let go and move on for sanity’s sake. “The more I try to do something about it, the worse it gets for me,” she says. She’s been struggling with anxiety. “I felt like they were basically saying, ‘What do you want us to do? Your body is going to be touched. Your body is not your own,’ ” she says. “I went through my whole life thinking if something ever happened to me, of course there would be recourse. Now that I realize there isn’t, it’s a scarier world.”
Planes give many people an odd sense of safety: Far above our planet’s atmosphere and its everyday norms, it feels ordinary to sleep squeezed between total strangers. Dana will probably never experience air travel that way again. She remembers the sympathetic flight attendant saying to her, “Don’t worry, honey, we have him on a plane. He can’t go anywhere.” For a few hours, that was true. “But they let him go.”