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In-flight sexual harassment is a problem. Here’s what airlines can do about it

by AirTalk®

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Passengers sit on July 6, 2016 aboard the Swiss International Air Lines' new Bombardier CS 100 passenger jetliner during a flight over the Swiss Alps. MICHAEL BUHOLZER/AFP/Getty Images

The movement to bring awareness to sexual harassment and assault on public transport has gained steam in the last several years.

LA Metro launched a campaign in 2015 to foreground the issue and educate riders, and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority in DC has been working with grassroots groups to tackle the issue.

Despite these efforts, there’s one area of transport that has received little attention when it comes to issues of sexual harassment and assault: commercial flights.

Patt talked with listener Emily in Downtown who shared her experience of being sexually harassed on a plane:

Emily’s experience is far from unique. As with sexual assault cases in general, in-flight incidents are thought to be under-reported.

According to a recent Slate article, the FBI cited 37 open cases involving sexual assaults on aircrafts so far this year, but it’s impossible to get a more accurate number since it’s not something the Federal Aviation Administration tracks. The article also finds that cabin crew are often ill-equipped to handle these kinds of allegations.

"There is a lack of clear guidelines in terms of what an aircrew is going to do," said Manish Madan, Professor of Criminal Justice at Stockton University.

Sara Nelson, International president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said both passengers and airline staff need clear guidelines.

“Passengers need to know... to report it [sexual harassment] to the crew members,” she said. “We [flight attendants] also need training in how to recognize these issues... the victims are not necessarily in a situation where they feel comfortable to report it themselves.”

While flight attendants can restrain a passenger who is a physical threat to others onboard, sexual assault and harassment sometimes falls outside the range of established procedure.

“This is a unique crime,” Nelson said. “There needs to  be training around it... how to respond both to the perpetrator and to the victim, to handle it properly, report it and... get that report to the authorities so that they can properly handle it.”

These interviews have been edited for clarity. This story has been updated.


Sara Nelson, International president, Association of Flight Attendants

Manish Madan, Professor of Criminal Justice at Stockton University in  Galloway, NJ, whose research focuses on sexual harassment and sexual assaults

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