Here's How Airlines Really Handle Sexual Assault

The process could use some work, say those who've been groped.
Swell Media via Getty Images

When you board a plane, you’re probably braced for a row of folks who are overly chatty or a neighbor who reclines their seat way too far. Just about the last horror you expect on a flight is for a seatmate to start touching you or someone else in an inappropriate way.

Unfortunately, sexual assault on planes happens more often than you might think.

Jessica Leeds amplified the subject earlier this month when she said it happened to her while traveling first class to New York City on a business trip more than 30 years ago. Current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump introduced himself as he sat next to her, chatted a bit and waited until about 45 minutes into the flight before he moved toward her, grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt, Leeds told the New York Times.

“He was like an octopus,” she said earlier this month when she came forward with her assault, which Trump said did not happen. “His hands were everywhere.”

What Leeds described is not entirely uncommon: Slate took a deep dive into sexual assault on planes in August and found the FBI had 37 open cases on the topic from 2016. This number doesn’t include assaults reported on local levels, so it’s likely the total number is actually much higher. If you read through victim accounts online, you’ll realize sexual assault between passengers happens perhaps more frequently than you think, sometimes to children.

On Sunday, L.A.-based writer Ariana Lenarsky said a man grabbed and stroked her calf aboard a flight from Austin to California. The man also allegedly tried to kiss another passenger, Lenarsky told her nearly 8,000 followers as she provided a Twitter play-by-play from the plane.

Lenarsky spoke with both the FBI and local law enforcement at her destination about the incident, an Austin Police Department spokesperson confirmed to HuffPost.

Stories like these may have you wondering: What happens when there’s a sexual assault on a plane? Or what should happen? The smartest response is to let your flight attendant know immediately if you see or are subject to an assault. But they probably won’t make a big show about it.

Flight attendants are trained to handle sexual assault quickly and quietly.

James Lauritz via Getty Images

The general protocol with airlines is to have flight attendants separate the passengers involved in an assault and re-seat them as far away from each other as possible, according to three major carriers who shared policy information to The Huffington Post.

If things get really hairy, the pilot may divert the flight and land at another airport, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines.

Representatives for two other major U.S. airlines told HuffPost that “when needed,” personnel onboard the plane can get word to the ground and have local authorities meet the plane when it lands. This is generally handled by the pilot, who communicates with the ground.

A flight attendant, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she is not authorized to discuss her airline’s policies, said she’d separate passengers quickly but quietly.

“As a crew we would try to be as discreet as possible and handle the situation with minimal disturbance,” she said. “The captain would be notified, as well as authorities.”

There’s a reason you don’t hear about inflight assault very often.

This “separating” often occurs very discreetly. And the notifying of authorities doesn’t always happen as often or as swiftly as it could, according to women who have spoken out about being sexually assaulted inflight.

This may be because flight attendant training doesn’t cover sexual assault specifically, just assault in general, said Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants labor union. Garland noted that if airlines were to treat sexual assault as a specific and unique threat, it may help cases get more attention. However, every case is different so it’s tough to generalize, she added.

Heather Poole, a working flight attendant and author of the book Cruising Attitude, has also been a victim of inappropriate sexual conduct on a flight. But even so, Poole says she’d be careful if one passenger accused another of the act.

“I would do everything I could to make the passenger feel safe and comfortable,” Poole told HuffPost. “But I’d also have to feel the situation out. I wouldn’t want to accuse an innocent person of something they didn’t do.”

Indeed, much of a flight attendant’s job is keeping everyone onboard calm, even in situations as serious as assault.

Poole has never dealt with a passenger-on-passenger assault in her 20 years of flying. It’s likely some passengers don’t report their assaults because they feel too ashamed or intimidated to do so, she suggested, or because they’d rather get on with their travel. One victim who shared her story with Slate said she didn’t report her assault while in-air because it would have required her to squeeze past her assailant’s seat to reach the aisle.

“When you’re traveling, it’s easier to let things go, to not deal with something that might hold you up or cause you to miss a connecting flight, when the odds of seeing the person ever again is slim to none,” Poole told HuffPost. “It’s easier to let something slide that I might not have if I worked in a place where I had to see this person every day.”

For a number of reasons, most victims of sexual assault of any type don’t report the incident to police, according to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.

Jessica Leeds is one of them. After Trump allegedly groped her, she left her seat for coach class but didn’t tell any of the cabin crew. In that era of business, she said, women weren’t encouraged to stand up for themselves and unwanted advances were common. “We accepted it for years,” she told the Times. “We were taught it was our fault.”

Lenarsky did report her case, but said she was told by the FBI on the ground that she’d have to file a report on her case with police in Austin, which would require her to purchase another flight back to Texas.

Later, she issued an update on Twitter that the Austin police reached out to her to take a report.

“By sharing this story, I believe I have inadvertently illuminated that the process of reporting assault is broken,” she wrote.

What to do if it happens to you

Speaking up about any inappropriate behavior can be scary, but if you witness an assault, it’s important to remember that you’ve got a plane full of support. And in Lenarsky’s case, the entire internet rallied around her, too.

“Sometimes people can feel nervous about getting involved or unsure about whether what they’re seeing is consensual or not,” Terri Poore, policy director for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told HuffPost. “Sometimes people can feel afraid to intervene. But there’s always the option to involve someone else, like a flight attendant.”

If you see or experience sexual assault on a plane, tell your flight attendant right away. It’s the right ― and safe ― thing to do.

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