The man shuffled into the flight late, after all the other passengers were seated. He acted “like he was jumping out of his skin,” recalled the woman in the next seat.
After the lights had dimmed for the overnight flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Panama, the man sexually assaulted her, said the woman, a Los Angeles film executive who asked that her identity be shielded.
After yelling and struggling with the man, she got the attention of a flight attendant, who moved her to another seat on the October 2017 flight. The assailant remained seated next to another female passenger, the woman said, and no attempt was made to isolate or restrain him.
The trauma from the incident has lingered. “I avoid all night flights,” she said.
Reports of sexual harassment and assault on commercial flights are on the rise, although law enforcement officials say the problem is underreported. Airlines and federal officials have moved to address the issue by voicing a policy of zero tolerance for such acts and improving training to deal with reports.
But flight attendants and lawmakers say airlines need to do more. They are calling for carriers to adopt a consistent set of protocols for responding to such incidents. They want airlines to collect data on the reports of attacks and harassment. They want carriers to offer new training for flight attendants to respond to these occurrences.
“We want to make sure we have all the tools to deal with these incidents,” said Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Assn. of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.
The number of sex assaults on commercial flights reported to the FBI jumped to 63 in 2017, up from 38 incidents in 2014 — probably a tiny fraction of the number of assaults that occur, according to the agency.
“We believe it’s highly underreported because some women are embarrassed to report it,” said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles. “Some people report the crimes much later.”
But the increase in reported assaults and harassment and attention in the news media have prompted the FBI to be more vocal about warning fliers in recent months. In April, the agency issued a bulletin that included five precautions for air passengers, such as keeping the armrest down.
“We have done a proactive push to spread awareness,” Eimiller said.
Flight attendants have been victims, too, according to a recent survey by the Assn. of Flight Attendants that found 68% of flight attendants had suffered some form of sexual harassment during their career.
The 2018 funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration called for the creation of a National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force to review existing protocols and to recommend new training, reporting and data collection about incidents of sexual assaults on flights.
“The problem is a lack of training for pilots and flight attendants,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who pushed for the language in the FAA funding bill. “If it happens, they don’t know what to do.”
Murray advocated for the task force partly in response to a 2016 incident on a Delta Air Lines flight from Seattle to Amsterdam.
A passenger on the plane, Allison Dvaladze, says her seatmate assaulted her. She appeared on television to talk about the incident and in February filed a lawsuit accusing the airline of failing to train crew members to deal with attacks.
The nation’s airlines say they have taken steps to address the problem. Several carriers, including American, Alaska, Spirit and United, say they have implemented get-tough policies and new training for crew members to identify and respond to the problem.
“I’ve asked each of our leaders to ensure that proper policies and procedures, proper training, and proper awareness exists to respond promptly and thoughtfully to incidents, and to report quickly, if incidents of harassment or assault do occur,” Alaska Airlines Chief Executive Brad Tilden wrote in a memo to employees in April.
On Delta Air Lines, law enforcement officials are now automatically notified when a passenger complains about being harassed or assaulted. In the past, law enforcement was called only if a passenger requested that police meet the plane upon landing or if crew members witnessed an attack.
“Our new policy entails being more direct to engage law enforcement when allegations of assault occur,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said. The new policy took effect in March, prompted by growing concerns about harassment, human trafficking and intoxicated fliers on planes, he said.
Flight attendants and passenger advocates say the problem is compounded by the airline industry’s efforts to maximize profits by flying planes near capacity. The more crowded a flight, the less likely flight attendants will have empty seats to separate victims and assailants.
“There are only so many seats,” said Garland of the Assn. of Flight Attendants. “We are in a confined space.”
Passenger rights advocate Paul Hudson obtained records of 19 complaints of assaults and harassment filed by airline passengers with the U.S. Department of Transportation since 2012.
The records, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, described at least two incidents in which crowded conditions on the plane prevented flight attendants from separating an alleged assailant from other passengers.
“If you have planes full but you shrink the seats and the passenger space, people are body to body,” said Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, which has about 60,000 members.
Among the 19 incidents was a complaint by a woman who said she was attacked on a March 2017 Swiss Air flight. She said a male seatmate repeatedly grabbed her and kissed her on the neck when she fell asleep, according to the complaint.
“The flight attendants did not offer any help and could not re-seat me as the flight was full,” the woman said in her complaint.
Swiss Air said in an email it could not comment on the incident without the written consent of the alleged victim, whose name was not provided by the Transportation Department.
In December, a federal judge sentenced a Michigan man to nine years in prison for assaulting a female seatmate on a nighttime Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Detroit. Spirit flight attendants separated the victim from her assailant on the plane and alerted police, court records show.
Prosecutors in the case attributed the increase in assaults on planes to “increasingly cramped, confined spaces; alcohol and drugs; fewer flight attendants; and dark cabins on night flights — factors that likely embolden offenders. The cramped style of airplane seating can exacerbate trauma for victims,” according to court documents.
Even when an airline cabin isn’t full, the close quarters and communal nature of flying on a commercial plane make complaining about a fellow passenger intimidating and awkward, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Harrisburg, Penn.
“That proximity of an airplane makes it extra uncomfortable,” she said.
In addition to training flight attendants to better respond to such incidents, airlines should include in the pre-takeoff safety announcement a warning to passengers that sexual misconduct won’t be tolerated and that violators may be banned by the airline, Houser said.
“They could start doing some consistent messaging and campaigning to let them know it’s a priority,” she said.
When a passenger complains to a flight attendant about being harassed or assaulted by another flier, airline representatives say, flight attendants are instructed to speak to both fliers, separate the passenger and the alleged attacker and notify police.
“Flight attendants are empowered to look at every option,” said Bobbie Egan, a spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines, which launched new training on the problem last spring.
In several of the complaints filed with the Transportation Department, the alleged victims said police weren’t notified and the assailants walked off the plane without punishment.
On a Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Chicago in August 2016, a female passenger said in one of the complaints, a man seated behind her repeatedly reached around the seat to touch her. She said crew members didn’t take action.
“Spirit Airlines feels that it was OK for that passenger in seat 28F to do that to me and because I did not ask to move my seat that it was my fault for being sexually harassed,” the woman said in her complaint.
A Spirit Airlines representative declined to comment on the incident described in the complaint but pointed to an employee memo released in May by Bob Fornaro, chief executive of the Florida-based carrier.
“Our leadership team will not tolerate any form of harassment, including sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, or any other demeaning or offensive conduct,” he wrote.
In her lawsuit against Delta, Dvaladze said that after she was assaulted a crew member told her to “let it roll off your back.” Delta crew members also failed to identify the man before he got off the plane, making it impossible for law enforcement officials to prosecute him, according to the lawsuit.
Black, the Delta spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The Los Angeles film executive said she had a similarly frustrating experience with her complaint.
When her Copa Airlines flight landed in Panama, she said, the plane was met by Panamanian law enforcement officials who took a sworn statement from her.
When the woman checked with officials at the Panamanian Consulate by phone later for an update on her case, she was told the matter was turned over to U.S. officials for prosecution.
In a statement, Copa said the airline had “zero tolerance for this type of behavior and is strongly committed to the safety and well-being of its passengers.”
In Los Angeles, FBI officials said they did not prosecute the assailant because the case fell under Panama’s jurisdiction. (An international agreement adopted in Tokyo says that prosecution of a crime on a plane flying on an international route is the responsibility of the country where the plane is registered. Panama signed the agreement in 1963.)