In-flight sexual assaults seen as growing problem
Advocacy group seeking info gets grounded by FBI
FORT WORTH, Texas — Aubrey Lane was flying from Phoenix to New York when the man next to her started ordering multiple drinks at once.
As he became intoxicated, he started to make inappropriate comments to Lane, according to a federal lawsuit she filed against American Airlines in October 2018. At one point, he grabbed her face and kissed her, a witness said in an email to the airline.
“She would push him off and say that ‘couldn’t happen,’ ” the witness said.
After ordering four vodkas and two beers, the man was visibly drunk. He got up to go to the bathroom. Lane, taking the opportunity to also get up, went to the bathroom.
The man forced himself into the bathroom with Lane and raped her, she said in the lawsuit.
Sexual assault on airplanes is a growing problem, according to data from the FBI. But no one seems to know how much of a problem it is.
“It’s definitely not getting better,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, an organization that represents airline passengers. “If there aren’t reforms, I think it’ll get worse.”
According to the FBI — the leading agency for investigating misconduct in the air — in-flight sexual assaults rose from 2014 to 2017. In fiscal year 2014, 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to the FBI.
In the 2017 fiscal year, that number increased to 63. Reported assaults dropped to 39 in the 2018 fiscal year, The New York Times reported.
In June 2018, the FBI said the number of sexual assaults reported during commercial airline flights was increasing, and the number of actual cases could be higher than those reported.
However, more recent data and details on in-flight sexual misconduct are difficult to obtain.
The Star-Telegram requested investigative reports on sexual assault on planes, statistics on the number of sexual assaults reported and data on those assaults through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI denied the request, citing rules that a federal agency does not have to create records or conduct research on requested data.
Hudson said the FBI has denied the group’s requests for data for several years.
“They know how many investigations they did, they know how many prosecutions they had,” Hudson said. “Their answer is, ‘It’s not in the standard database, so we can’t help you.’ ”
Hudson said the increase in overnight flights, longdistance flights and flight attendants over- serving passengers alcohol increase the likelihood of sexual misconduct in the air.
He also said the FBI does not prioritize the assaults.
“They’re organized to deal with white collar, organized crime, terrorism, things of that nature,” he said.
Every day, 44,000 flights carry 2.7 million airline passengers across the world, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
If one of those passengers is assaulted or harassed, they have no official avenue to report the incident. A passenger might tell a flight attendant what happened, who may report it to the captain, who might tell a ground supervisor, who then may or may not report it to the police department of where the plane lands.
And then maybe the FBI will look into it.
“You have a four- or five-step process to get a proper investigation,” Hudson said. “In most cases, nothing occurs. Through those steps, the plane has landed, people have left and the possibility for proper investigation, much less prosecution, is gone.”
Unlike many industries, airlines do not have a legal mandate to report criminal activity, such as sexual assault.
Cruise lines, for example, became required to report crimes to the FBI with the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010.
But for airplanes, “there is no singular definition of sexual misconduct, there is no federal or national definition, there is not mandate for reporting,” said Sunitha Menon, chief of consulting services operations at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
A lack of a reporting process also means a lack of data, Menon said, and no comprehensive way to track the issue.
Menon and 13 others are working to change that.
In October 2018, President Donald Trump signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which established a task force assigned to examine the problem.
The National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force consists of 14 members from varying backgrounds and groups. Menon is one of them — other members include airline representatives, Department of Justice directors and labor organization leaders. The group started meeting once a month in April 2018.
“People sit in planes and talk to people next to them without even knowing who they are,” Menon said. “(Assault) doesn’t happen frequently, but we want to make sure that when it does, the individual is supported in a holistic and victim-center way.”
A woman filed a lawsuit against American Airlines in 2018 after she was allegedly raped by a fellow passenger on one of its flights.