Are airlines doing enough to stop in-flight sexual assaults?

By | November 18th, 2015

Think twice before taking a nap on a plane.

That’s what safety experts and frequent travelers advise in the wake of the latest in-flight sexual assault incident, a shocking encounter that happened in late October on a flight from Dubai to New York.

The circumstances are so troubling that I find it difficult to reveal the specifics. Follow the link if you must know the details. You’ve been warned.

In-flight sexual assaults are reportedly soaring.

Security consultant Steve Albrecht suspects these crimes are far more common than we think. “I wonder how many cases go unreported, out of embarrassment or shame — just like we see now with victims of sexual abuse or assault, around the world,” he says.

But some do get reported:

  • This summer, a Catholic priest was convicted of touching a woman’s breast, inner thigh and groin on an overnight cross-country US Airways flight, according to the FBI. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison.
  • Last fall, a Japanese national was ordered into custody for allegedly abusive sexual contact on a United Airlines flight. Investigators say that while aboard, he sat next to a 21-year-old female, with whom he initiated unsolicited sexual contact. The man allegedly touched her breast and leg and placed his hand under the victim’s skirt and underwear on at least two occasions during the flight, officials said.
  • A year ago, a New York resident faced charges of engaging in abusive sexual contact with a sleeping woman aboard a flight from Tokyo to Newark. The woman awoke to find the suspect’s hand on the front of her shirt, touching her breast through her clothing. He then touched the skin of her neck and attempted to place his hand down the front of the woman’s shirt, according to investigators.
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Airlines don’t publicly disclose statistics on sexual assault. The FBI recorded 170 crimes aboard aircraft in 2014 and 169 cases so far this year, but the agency doesn’t share how many of those were sexual assaults.

The U.S.Department of Transportation doesn’t even have a complaint category for assaults, let alone sexual assaults, so it’s impossible to know the extent of the problem. In the last year, it recorded a total of 15,532 complaints, up from 13,176 a year before.


“The safety and security of our passengers and crewmembers are our highest priority,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A, a trade group representing many major domestic airlines. “Airlines have processes and procedures in place to ensure that crewmembers report all observed and reported criminal activity that occurs on board the aircraft to the FAA and appropriate law enforcement authorities, who are responsible for recording such incidents and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of offenders.”

Molly Sheerer, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, says sexual assaults are taken far more seriously today than they were before 9/11.

“There is not a universal standard to enforce penalties when someone engages in assault onboard an aircraft,” she says.

Her association has long advocated for attendants to be trained in self-defense, which could stop future incidents, she says.

“Equipping flight attendants with another tool to protect those onboard will help both the crew and passengers,” she adds.

Harassed in flight

Lexi Noel, a social media consultant from Los Angeles, says part of the problem is that sexual harassment — a precursor to assault — is either underreported or completely ignored. Noel commutes between Los Angeles and Atlanta, often on the red-eye flight, and she is in a position to know.

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“Most of the times the people who sit around me are very respectful and friendly,” she says. “But unfortunately, on one of the flights back home I encountered a very sexually aggressive passenger. I tried very politely to convey my lack of interest but this man continued to sexually harass me and was getting angry at why I wasn’t interested in him.”

Finally the other male passenger sitting next to Noel intervened and threatened to contact the flight attendant.

Noel didn’t report the advances of her seatmate to the crew, believing that the other male passenger’s intervention would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

“When I got off the plane, the harassing passenger followed me until I met up with my mom,” she says. “It has now made me very aware of who is sitting next to me and I won’t take a red-eye flight unless a family member or friend is sitting next to me.”

Crew can’t be everywhere

Albrecht, the security consultant, says stopping sexual assault on planes is not just a matter of identifying the scope of the problem; it also means finding potential solutions. There are some tough questions to be asked, including: Can flight crews identify the warning signs for physical and sexual assault behavior? Do flight attendants have any training in handling a sexual assault?

“The airlines and their crews can say they can’t be everywhere and see everything, but the airline cabin is still a small space, with the opportunity for vigilance from the flight attendants as they pass on a regular basis,” he says.

Robert Siciliano, a personal security expert, says rather than rely on crewmembers to protect you, passengers should take matters into their own hands. Among his tips: Avoid taking any medications that would facilitate a deep sleep and cover your drink and take it with you to avoid a dose. Tuck a blanket under your legs, wear a visor, and keep the light on when you sleep, he adds.

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“If for some reason your seatmate creeps you out, ask to move,” he says. “If you can’t, then have a conversation with your other seatmates and bring attention to the problem.”

Finally, you can inform the crew of your misgivings and ask them to check in with you during the flight — just in case you doze off.

Are airlines doing enough to stop sexual assaults?

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  • technomage1

    What a disturbing link. Someone who is incapable of consent isn’t giving consent. Hope the guy goes to prison for a long time.

  • Jeff W.

    I am not exactly sure as to what one expects the airlines to do? The post mentions giving the flight attendant self-defence classes. That will certainly help them if they are harrassed, but the examples included are pax (male) on pax (female). And all three examples were overnight flights. The plane would be dark, even with the one overhead light on.

    FAs, especially on long flights, are not roaming the aisles all of the time. They would not be able to see if there is any inappopriateness occuring. And odds are quite high the perp would see the FA before the FA sees the perp.

    FAs are already underpaid and we expect so much already from them. Adding policing seems to much to ask.

  • Regina Litman

    We need a Do Nor Fly list for sexual predators.

  • Barthel

    How about the victim fighting back? Ramming the palm of the hand into the offenders nose with an upward motion would be effective.

  • JenniferFinger

    She was asleep.

  • Bill___A

    Everyone needs to work together to stop sexual assaults. Zero tolerance.

  • JewelEyed

    I used to be embarrassed that I’ve never flown alone before. Not anymore…

  • C Schwartz

    Disturbing. I think it would be hard for flight attendents to monitor all the passengers especially on overnight flights as the lights are turned off. I think we all must be vigilant and report any bad behavior.

  • cscasi

    Great idea. Wonder if TSA could make that happen or will it take legislative action?

  • LonnieC

    This is an odd one. First, 140 FBI incidents out of the 848,000,000 passengers in 2014 is 0.00002% – obviously a very small percentage. I’m not sure what can be done to stop that small a number.

    Having said that, the incidents reported are certainly disturbing. Perhaps there can be several layers of defense. Fist, the assaulted party should have the right to break off any part of another passenger she (or he) finds inside her (or his) clothing. Failing that, the victim should contact the flight attendants and report the incident immediately. No one should be allowed to get away with that kind of behavior. A nearby passenger can also – obviously – be of help. And both the airline and the victim should press charges. No exceptions. Let the courts settle these matters. Disgusting….

    Is this another example of the increasing coarseness of society, or am I overreacting?

  • BMG4ME

    The same thing could happen anywhere. An airplane should be the simplest place to stop it because the offender can’t escape, and all you have to do is tell a crew member, not another passenger. Unless we are now expecting ESP to be a requirement for a flight attendant, I don’t see what the airline could have done if they weren’t actually ever told there was a problem.

  • judyserienagy

    This is a disgusting story. I dislike being cynical, but something isn’t ringing right with this story. It is difficult to comprehend how this dork spread hand lotion all over her body, including her genitals, without her waking up. “Less than 3 ounces is very little lotion. How could she possibly remain sleeping through this?

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