Woman Sues Delta After Onboard Sexual Assault, Raises Awareness

Mar 1, 2018

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A long-haul Delta flight between Seattle and Amsterdam, jet lag, a packed schedule: Allison Dvaladze was prepared for it all. She did not, however, anticipate what the neighboring passenger would do three hours into her flight back in April of 2016.

“I awoke to a hand in my crotch,” Dvaladze told PBS NewsHour. “It was totally, completely shocking to have that happen.”

The in-flight assault, and the airline’s “anemic” response, led Dvaladze to file a lawsuit against Delta Airlines Tuesday, February 27, in the US District Court of Seattle.

Nightmare at 35,000 Feet

According to the Seattle Times, once Dvaladze realized what was happening, she immediately hit the arm of the man who was groping her. But he simply blocked the motion, and grabbed again between her legs. It took Dvaladze a few moments to free herself from her seatbelt and escape her aisle seat. She then ran toward the back of the plane to notify the flight attendants.

“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I couldn’t explain right away what had happened.” When she caught her breath, she found the flight attendants “wanting to be supportive, but it was also clear that there was no clear procedure on how they should respond, and what the protocol was for what to do next. They wanted me to tell them. They asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’”

One flight attendant commented on how often women are assaulted on flights, saying, “You have to let it roll off your back.”

The crew asked another traveler to switch seats with Dvaladze for the remainder of the flight, promising to file a report and interview nearby passengers about the incident. However, the cabin lights were dimmed and most passengers were wearing eye masks — nobody had seen anything. As the plane was preparing to land, the flight attendants said Dvaladze would have to return to her original seat, next to the perpetrator. She refused.

When the plane reached Amsterdam, no law enforcement officials were there to take a statement or investigate further. Her assailant walked off with no consequences, and Dvaladze, who was en route to Uganda for work, had to rush to make her connecting flight onto Africa. She emailed a week later to follow up on the Delta crew’s incident report.

A month later, she received 10,000 SkyMiles in recognition of “some of the frustration and inconvenience you may have felt.” But Delta eventually admitted to Dvaladze that the airline 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 described. We take all accounts of sexual assault very seriously and conduct routine reviews of our processes.”

(Illustration by Gaston Mendieta)

Flight Risks

“I’ve traveled for years. I never heard of this and never thought about it” before that April 2016 flight, said Dvaladze, an executive who frequently travels in her role as Director of Strategy for a Seattle-based health program.

Sadly, it’s not surprising that Dvaladze was unaware of other onboard assault cases. In 2016, the same year Dvaladze was assaulted, Slate author Nora Caplan-Bricker observed that “airlines are surprisingly ill-equipped to handle accusations of sexual assault on their planes.”

Sexual misconduct on commercial flights often goes unreported, and perpetrators routinely walk away with no consequences for their actions, said retired FBI Special Agent Mike Adams, whose job it was to be notified of all such reports on flights landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Since there are no standardized protocols for reporting these crimes on commercial craft, passengers are at the mercy of their particular crew’s level of expertise and empathy.

“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. People need to understand that these women need to be heard, and they need to be believed.

Even when brave passengers like Dvaladze come forth, they can struggle to find the right resources to address the issue. According to Adams, a lengthy chain of communication must take place for the right authorities to even get word of an onboard assault: The victim must report the incident to the flight attendants, who pass it along to the pilots, who escalate the report to the airline’s operations center. From there, the airline is responsible for contacting airport police, who must finally bring the case to the FBI.

The FBI, which holds jurisdiction to investigate crimes on aircraft in American airspace or involving US citizens, has seen a 66% increase in reported incidents of onboard sexual assault since 2014.

Year FBI cases of onboard assault
2014 38
2015 40
2016 58
2017 63

However, the agency only tracks cases where a formal FBI investigation was conducted; the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) holds no jurisdiction on this issue. Furthermore, the agency doesn’t distinguish sexual harassment or assault from other misconduct on planes, nor are these incidences collectively tracked in a centralized crime database such as the Uniform Crime Report. Thus, it’s difficult to determine how often onboard assault occurs, even when reports are filed with local police and to airport security personnel.

Flying The Unfriendly Skies

Passenger assault complaints aren’t limited to Delta Airlines, and Ms. Dvaladze isn’t the only victim by a long shot — she isn’t even Delta’s only complainant from 2016.

In November 2017, Randi Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, spoke out about her own harassment experience onboard an Alaska Airlines flight, saying, “We cannot support businesses that are complicit in allowing this behavior, and value the money of harassers over the comfort of their passengers.” Zuckerberg later said that she felt satisfied with the way Alaska Airlines was handling the situation and its follow-up.

A young woman named Katie Campos tweeted about a similar experience on a United flight in December 2017, sharing a screenshot of her fiancé’s statement to United:

“My intention in sharing what happened is to push for policy, training, and expectation that flight attendants and all airlines are trained and prepared to protect their passengers by removing the problem — not those affected by the problem.”

Credit: https://twitter.com/KatieCampos9/status/943548749514715136?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.washingtonpost.com%2Fnews%2Fdr-gridlock%2Fwp%2F2017%2F12%2F20%2Fthe-stranger-on-the-plane-started-grabbing-her-thigh-she-said-it-didnt-get-better-until-landing%2FKatie Campos and her fiancé formally complained to United about their horrifying travel experience with a drunk traveler who repeatedly harassed and assaulted them and other passengers. Image courtesy of Katie Campos via Twitter.

Aviation is far from the only branch of the travel industry fraught with legal ambiguity, claims of negligence, and lack of awareness when it comes to these issues. A teen was sexually assaulted onboard a Greyhound bus, a rape victim sued Amtrak after being viciously attacked by a train employee, and TripAdvisor sparked heated criticism for deleting multiple reviews warning about rape and assault at one Mexico resort.

Children and teens traveling alone are particularly vulnerable to onboard assault, with multiple incidents making front-page news in recent months. Flight attendants also are no stranger to harassment themselves, whether from passengers or even from fellow crew members. 

(Illustration by Gaston Mendieta)

What Next?

Awareness around passenger assault on public transportation has grown in recent years, especially after Jessica Leeds alleged in 2016 that Donald Trump had fondled her on a 1979 flight to New York. Yet action proved harder to take: In 2014, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton unsuccessfully attempted to pass a bill forcing the FAA to track statistics regarding onboard assault.

After her own experience, Dvaladze took a frontline approach to tackling the problem. She launched a campaign focused on protecting airline passengers from sexual assault, and reached out to her senator, Patty Murray, for help with the initiative.

In July 2017, Murray and Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania introduced the SAFE Act (Stopping Assault while Flying Enforcement). The proposed bill would require standardized training to help flight attendants address and treat victims of onboard sexual assault, and would also mandate centralized reporting and classification of such cases.

The bill was accompanied by a letter to the attorney general and the head of the FAA, and signed by 22 other senators, who hope to insert the same protection requirements into a pending FAA reauthorization bill, which must pass by March 31 of this year in order to go into effect.

Since no formal legislation regarding onboard assault exists at this point, Dvaladze and her lawyers filed her lawsuit against Delta under a treaty that dictates certain passenger rights on international flights, such lost luggage. Under that treaty, airlines are automatically liable for passenger injuries, up to a maximum of around $150,000. If the courts decide that the carriers have been negligent, the damages can be even higher.

In the meantime, Dvaladze has worked on public awareness at a grassroots level, collaborating with the New York Times to offer common-sense tips on “how to protect yourself on a plane.” Her advice includes:

  • Be loud about saying “No,” so others around you hear.
  • Get up immediately and report it to the crew.
  • Ask the crew to notify the pilot and request that law enforcement be waiting for the plane when it lands.
  • Ask the flight attendant to record the name of the alleged offender, since people don’t always sit in the seat assigned to them.
  • Insist that either you or the offender be moved and refuse to sit next to that person again, even upon landing.
  • Don’t assume it can’t happen to you.

Sexual predators typically favor long-haul flights, where the cabin lights are dim and most passengers are trying to catch some sleep. Yet taking red-eye flights and sleeping onboard are standard elements of travel that should be safe for any passenger. At the end of the day, the responsibility for prevention lies with companies to enforce higher standards, and with the government to standardize and stiffen penalties against perpetrators — not in asking victims to do a better job of protecting themselves.

Dvaladze also asks airlines to demonstrate their commitment to addressing sexual assault on planes in three steps:

1) Publish your protocol for responding to sexual assault on a plane.
2) Provide training to your crew on how to appropriately handle a sexual assault and how to support the victim, not just manage the perpetrator (this is different than how to handle a disruptive passenger).
3) Provide clear, simple instructions in your pre-flight video and back of the seat safety card instructing passengers what to do in the event their safety and security is jeopardized by another passenger.

A number of airlines, including Delta, have successfully combated child sex trafficking by training cabin crew to look for telltale warning signs in victims. Perhaps Dvaladze’s three steps can similarly revolutionize the culture surrounding onboard assault.

“If I can change the way that this is being addressed, if I can get airlines to put in place policies so this doesn’t happen to other people, then that will be a success,” Dvaladze said.

Illustrations by Gaston Mendieta

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