The Sexual-Harassment Stories of Flight Attendants, Both as Victims and Offenders

May 18, 2018

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Passengers aren’t the only vulnerable people when it comes to sexual harassment in the air. The news that a survey found that 70% of flight attendants have been sexually harassed in the course of their duties came as no surprise to the airline employees of both genders TPG spoke to, with many of them sharing disturbing accounts of being harassed both by passengers and other crew members. In a couple cases, both male and female passengers told us how they were the victims of unwanted advances by flight attendants on flights.

“About six months ago, I had a flight where the man was going to a bachelor party [with] a group of guys … and as I was walking down the aisle, he grabbed me by my waist and pulled me onto his lap, telling me that he wanted to join the mile-high club,” one flight attendant, who did not want to share her name, said. “It was a little bit scary. I did feel a little bit nervous at that time because everyone else was up in the galley and not really paying attention to what was going on.”

“One time, I was wearing a sparkly lanyard with my ID on it, and a pax actually touched it with his fingers right at the area of my breasts,” another flight attendant, who also asked to remain unnamed, said, using the industry abbreviation for passenger. “Another time … this guy was leaning his head out into the aisle and I literally backed right into his face. To me, it was on purpose.”

The first flight attendant said that, as a consequence of being harassed so often, she’s had to become less friendly toward customers.

“I don’t get that close to the passengers anymore,” she said. “I used to be more friendly and try to make them feel like I was very approachable and everything, but then some of the guys would think that was an invitation for them to hit on me act inappropriately. I just keep it very professional and maybe even a little bit standoffish for my own safety.”

The second flight attendant, on the other hand, said that both the culture of the industry and her own reaction as a woman is to let the harassers off without calling them out on it or reporting the incidents.

“We’ve been taught to smile and laugh things off rather than let them escalate,” she said. “I feel like it’s easier to laugh and smile at old men’s bad jokes or inappropriate comments because we’re supposed to be the ones to deescalate the situation. But I’m getting so sick of it.”

“Flight attendants are still seen as sex objects, and there’s never been a denouncing of that culture even if there are no more ads explicitly sexualizing flights attendants,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said by phone. “Throughout my career, when I’ve been in down time going out to a public place or something, when I say I’m a flight attendant, there’s always someone, usually a man, who says, ‘Ooh, do you have a boyfriend in every port?’ And [some flight attendants] have learned to adapt [by laughing it off] — I wouldn’t say they think it’s part of the job anymore, but there are those who believe they wouldn’t have any backup from the airline if they were to report it.”

But flight attendants aren’t just the victims. Sometimes they’re the aggressors, preying on passengers and other crew members alike.

Sophie, a medical consultant from the Boston area who asked that we not publish her last name, found that a pleasant business flight turned into a nightmare when a male flight attendant slipped her a note with his phone number and a message that made it graphically clear he was interesting in having sex with her. The bluntly sexual approach from an airline employee who she was certain could easily look up her personal information frightened her.

“He had my phone number, my address, my everything,” she said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t going to stand up in the middle of the aisle and say, ‘You’re disgusting!’ I didn’t know if he was going to show up at my house later that night. I was worried that if I were in any way to bring it into the open or file a grievance, that was a possibility.”

One male passenger recalled being crudely propositioned and fondled by a female flight attendant he regularly saw on his frequent trips between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Dallas.

“I got to Platinum really fast, so I normally flew first class on the DFW leg,” the man, whose first name is Michael, said. “I went to the bathroom one day. She pulled me into the front station, grabbed my penis and told me she took extra leave that week and asked where I was staying. I removed her hand, turned around and went back to my seat.”

Flight attendants who are victimized by other crew members are in an especially tight bind, because they have to weigh speaking out against the possibility that doing so could hurt their careers. Former flight attendant Steven S., who worked for five years for a domestic airline out of the East Coast and the South, said that when he turned down a fellow flight attendant’s advances (“On the plane, he grabbed me by the necktie, pulled me into him and said, ‘I’m going to suck your d*ck,'”), the latter used his seniority and friendship with managers to make it clear Steven would only derail his own career by complaining.

“It wouldn’t take long before any complaint turned into 100 or 200 copies circulated around the base saying, ‘Here’s Steven, who accused a male flight attendant of harassment. He’s a homophobe. Don’t work with him,'” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve seen this where [people who complain] get a reputation and no one wants to fly with them. It’s career suicide.”

Indeed, only 7% of flight attendants in the AFA survey said they ever reported being harassed.

It happens on the other side of the cockpit door, too: An Alaska Airlines pilot is suing the carrier, alleging that a flight captain drugged and raped her last June.

Every airline that responded to requests for comment — Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest and United — denounced sexual harassment and said they support employees who report such incidents. Delta has revamped its policies and updated its training in the wake of the #MeToo movement, American has streamlined its reporting mechanisms, and Alaska, United and Spirit have been working with the AFA to combat the problem.

On Thursday, the AFA applauded the proposed Stop Sexual Assault and Harassment in Transportation Act, introduced by US Rep. Peter DeFazio, which would require airlines to set clear procedures and policies in cases of sexual harassment or assault; order the Department of Transportation to keep track of such cases; and make sexual physical harassment part of the official definition of interfering with crew, while increasing the penalty for interference to $35,000.

Still, Nelson said much more could be done.

“More flight attendants with more lines of sight would serve as a deterrent,” Nelson said. “It’d allow us to see this event, so the victims don’t have to just describe these events to us. This is something we’re calling on airlines to do immediately. They can do this without government intervention, and they can do it essentially tomorrow, within a 30-to-60-day period.”

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