WASHINGTON― Jennifer Rafieyan says she and her 12-year-old daughter were awaiting takeoff on a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Phoenix last month when they watched a flight attendant seat a visibly drunk man in the empty aisle seat next to them.
The man was intoxicated enough that the attendant had to guide him by his hips, Rafieyan recalled, and two attendants warned her about him.
“[One attendant] made some comment to me like, ‘This is going to be an interesting flight,’ and looked at him,” Rafieyan, 47, said. “And then the other flight attendant came up and said, ‘Let me know if you need anything. I mean it’― and she looked at him.”
Over the course of the next hour, Rafieyan says the 64-year-old repeatedly groped her and sexually harassed her. He rubbed her legs, grabbed her knee, kissed her hands, put his head on her shoulder and snatched her pen and notepad to add “PASIONAT NITE XX” to the to-do list she was writing, she said.
“That really grossed me out,” Rafieyan said. “My daughter was right there.”
Rafieyan, a married mother of three from Warren, New Jersey, said she was too “meek” to confront the man.
“I don’t react well. I freeze,” she said. “When a man is inappropriate with me, I usually just run from it and maybe tell somebody. But I felt trapped. I couldn’t leave the seat because I didn’t trust him near my daughter.”
“That really grossed me out. My daughter was right there.”
Eventually, when her daughter asked to use the bathroom, Rafieyan says she was able to get up and report the groping to one of the flight attendants, who didn’t seem surprised. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry. We felt really bad putting him next to you, but there was nothing we could do. He was doing the same kind of stuff to the other flight attendant.’”
The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits boarding “a passenger who appears to be intoxicated” and serving additional alcohol to a passenger who becomes inebriated on a plane. United Airlines has a contract of carriage that says it can refuse to board passengers who appear to be intoxicated.
Rafieyan claims that even after she complained, the attendant served the already intoxicated man three more whiskey drinks and a small wine bottle. He became belligerent, accused several people of stealing his passport, and then refused to sit down again until the flight attendant threatened to divert the plane and land early because of his behavior.
Rafieyan detailed all of this in an official complaint to United Airlines on March 29.
“I would like to know what policies are in place that allow this to happen,” she wrote. “FAA regulations prevent the boarding of an intoxicated person and selling alcohol to him. The [flight attendants] knowingly put a drunk person who had sexually harassed the [flight attendant] next to me and my daughter. United jeopardized the safety of everyone on board.”
The airline responded by sending Rafieyan four $100 travel vouchers without acknowledging her accusations or the alleged groping. “I am sorry for your family’s disappointing and uncomfortable flight to Phoenix,” a customer service representative wrote in an email shared with The Huffington Post. “As a gesture of goodwill, a separate email with four electronic travel certificates will arrive soon to make amends.”
This response infuriated Rafieyan.
“I’m sorry but I find this unacceptable,” she responded in an email to the airline. “If you review the complaint, you will note that I did not ask for any monetary reimbursement but instead answers ... I feel devalued as a human being.”
She then reported the incident to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation. The department said it would add the incident to its national sexual assault database and encouraged Rafieyan to file a report with the Federal Bureau of Investigations. (The FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division handles allegations of sexual assault on planes.) Because she had seen the man’s boarding pass, she was able to report his name to the FBI.
“We sincerely apologize to Ms. Rafieyan and her family for their experience. We are reviewing the way that this situation was handled on board, and how our customer care team responded,” a United spokeswoman told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “We will follow up with Ms. Rafieyan to apologize again, and discuss how we could have handled this situation better.”
Rafieyan said she is now less upset about the incident itself than about United’s response to it, especially since the airline recently refused to board two girls because they were wearing leggings. United Airlines spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the airline barred them because they were using a United employee pass and “were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel.” The airline did not explain why leggings are unacceptable attire.
United faced another public relations crisis this week, when security officers violently dragged a man off a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport because the flight was overbooked and no one volunteered to give up their seats. The video of the incident went viral.
Rafieyan said it really “disgusts” her that United would be picky about girls in leggings, but board inebriated men who are harassing women before the flight even takes off.
“It seems like they have their priorities totally warped,” she said.
This article has been updated with comment from United.
CORRECTION: It was the Department of Transportation, not the Federal Aviation Administration, that told Rafieyan it would add her incident to its database and encouraged her to report it to the FBI.