Fly Like an Eagle . . . Or Not

FA2Ahh, the luxury of flying. Getting to sit incredibly close to strangers, being cut off from your email, and having a delicious choice of broken cookies or bland pretzels to snack on. Bliss. Well now you can add sexual predators to that charming list of flight hazards.

Sexual harassment, in its new prominence, is drawing a lot of attention, and airplanes are a hotbed for sexual harassment. Almost 70% of flight attendants say that they have been subjected to sexual harassment while in the air. Many say that they are poked, “somewhere between the knees and the belly button,” by passengers on, “nearly every flight.” Many are asked, suggestively, about the infamous “mile-high” club.

What’s more, flight attendants and flight crews are in the position of authority when it comes to stopping sexual harassment on flights. Offenses can range from unwanted touching of fellow passengers, to more serious acts.

An airplane, as a workplace, poses a unique situation. Many of your “customers” are taking drugs to intentionally make themselves fall asleep. Many are drinking alcohol. Everyone is seated very close together. In most cases law enforcement cannot immediately arrive on the scene. And even then jurisdiction can be hard to place, because the location of your flight is rapidly changing. Whew.

The matter of jurisdiction was recently clarified by Brian Nadeau, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office. In a news conference at Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall Airport, he said, “Any crime aboard an aircraft falls within the FBI’s jurisdiction.” He clarified that, on an airplane, sexual assault can range from “grazing a body part to even more graphic acts.” He warned that sexual assault is a felony and those convicted could face, “up to 10 years [in prison], or if aggravated, up to life.”

Some airlines have also reported that they are changing their training to better address in-fight sexual assault. United’s CEO announced a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Delta has said that its crews follow a series of steps to investigate an issue and, if necessary, arranging for local law enforcement to be present upon arrival. And American focuses on training to curb passenger misconduct and gives crew members the authority to, “move passengers, and if necessary, . . . have law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival.”

There is also new legislation that has been introduced that could change how sexual harassment is handled in this industry. The bill is called the “Stop Sexual Assault and Harassment in Transportation Act,” and its aim is to have airlines and other transportation companies create new or better sexual harassment policies and procedures. Some of these procedures would include a better system for reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment, the ability for companies to ban passengers convicted of assault while using their service, and an increase in the civil penalty for interfering with a flight crew from $25,000 to $35,000.

Another measure to be taken could be changing the announcement on flights. These announcements, which already warn about tampering with smoke detectors and other illicit behavior, could include a message that discourages sexual harassment and assault as an added layer of protection for flight attendants and passengers.