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The number of sexual assaults reported on board commercial aircraft has skyrocketed over the last four years, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which hosted a public awareness event at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) Wednesday warning summer travelers to be on their guard.

FBI Special Agent David Rodski, who investigates crimes reported at BWI, said that in-flight sexual misconduct has increased “at an alarming rate” of 66% from 2014 to 2017, further stating that the FBI “isn’t sure why.” The attacks range from inappropriate touching, such as a light graze, to far more invasive actions, according to Assistant Special Agent Brian Nadeau. “These acts are felonies, which can land an offender in prison for 10 years — or, if aggravated — to life,” Nadeau said.

The FBI doesn’t have complete confidence in the official number of midair sexual assaults, because so many cases may go unreported. But the agency believes the actual number of midair assaults is far higher than reported. The FBI opened 63 inflight assault investigations in 2017, up from 57 cases in 2016, 40 in 2015 and 38 in 2014, and there have already been 10 reports of sexual assaults on flights landing at BWI Marshall Airport since January 1. Other airports across the country have reported similar statistics.

“I’m shocked at the number of passengers who do not [report assault mid-air], and they’ll wait until the plane is on the ground,” Rodski said, adding that making sure the proper authorities are notified “allows us to do the investigation, collect witnesses, get the flight crew for statements prior to everyone departing for their next destination.”

Statistically speaking, assault is most likely to occur on long-haul or red-eye flights where the cabin lights are dimmed for a portion of the time, and passengers seated away from the aisle are more at risk because they are trapped into their seats. And especially in travel, time moves too quickly for on-the-ground reporting, when many passengers are in a hurry to catch connecting flights, and flight attendants rush to deplane as quickly as possible. Yet the process of reporting in-flight assault, however, is very murky. While victims on the ground can self-report incidences to police, passengers mid-flight are at the mercy of flight attendants, who often are under-educated at best and can be openly antagonistic at worst regarding how to properly address the situation.

“If you’re a victim of a crime on the ground, what do you do?” said airline consumer group Flyers Rights president Paul Hudson, an attorney who has represented rape victims in New York. “You call 911 and report it to a police officer. But if you’re in an airplane, you can’t do that. You have to report through a flight attendant, and they have to report it to the captain, and the captain has to report it to a ground supervisor for the airline… In many cases, too much time has passed.”

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) published its own findings regarding in-flight sexual assault in March, based on self-reported accounts from more than 3,500 flight attendants. The AFA union found that, although nearly 70% of flight attendants themselves experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job, only 7% reported their customers or peers for fear of experiencing backlash from their airlines. Furthermore, 20% of surveyed flight attendants reported receiving assault reports from their passengers, but were unsure of how to address the issue. As a result, less than 50% of those reported situations resulted in law enforcement meeting the plane on the ground upon arrival.

AFA union president and United Airlines flight attendant Sara Nelson summed up the issue thus: “In my 22 years as a flight attendant, I have never taken part in a conversation — in training or otherwise — about how to handle sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

Even when police are involved, the lack of formal structure around jurisdiction complicates the process. For most passengers, the only other recourse is to file a “disruptive behavior” report with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which doesn’t recognize a separate complaint category for sexual assault.

Rodski’s statement regarding the responsibility to report assault perpetuates the issue of victim-blaming; victims are not to blame for the lack of historical reporting around midair sexual assault statistics. Due to the lack of data, it’s possible that sexual assault rates are not increasing; rather, the FBI simply receives more reports in a post-#metoo and post-Uber environment, where increased awareness emboldens passengers to speak up against transgressions that have always existed.

Several high-profile cases in recent years have had their impact on commercial aviation. In 2016, tech CEO Randi Zuckerberg made headlines for publicly calling out a fellow passenger who molested her on an Alaska Airlines flight, and former Delta passenger Allison Dvaladze sued the airline for failing to follow through after her seatmate repeatedly assaulted her on an international flight in 2016. Another former Delta passenger sued the carrier as well, stating that when she reported a passenger who had repeatedly groped her, a flight attendant refused to intervene because the man held elite status with the airline.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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