In-flight sex­ual as­saults seen as grow­ing prob­lem

Ad­vo­cacy group seek­ing info gets grounded by FBI

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Ka­ley John­son

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.”

MAX FAULKNER/FORT WORTH STAR-TELE­GRAM

A woman filed a law­suit against Amer­i­can Air­lines in 2018 af­ter she was al­legedly raped by a fel­low pas­sen­ger on one of its flights.

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