Airline travel is stressful under even the best circumstances. But for too many passengers, it’s the source of something more traumatic than long lines and a lack of legroom. This year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened 58 investigations into in-flight sexual assault allegations on commercial aircraft. But these investigations still don’t address the problematic reality that no centralized system exists for reporting sexual assaults on flights, or even collecting and publishing data tied to these events.
That's why, on Monday, Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) sent a letter to the Department of Justice and Federal Aviation Administration to address the urgent need for standards, training, and protocol when it comes to addressing, reporting, and preventing sexual assault on flights. Twenty-one other Senate Democrats also lent their signatures to the letter.
Over the past month, many Americans were forced to think about the dynamics of sexual assault mid-flight for the first time, after a 74-year-old woman named Jessica Leeds told The New York Times that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump grabbed her breasts and attempted to put his hand up her skirt when the two were seated next to one another on a flight in the early 1980s.
But stories like Leeds' aren't a relic from the past—they're a troubling reality facing airline passengers today, and one made more challenging by the fact that airline employees are not adequately trained to identify, assist with, or report inflight sexual assaults, according to Murray and Casey. This summer, three such stories made headlines and The New York Times reported earlier this month that Federal Bureau of Investigation investigations into in-flight sexual assaults have increased by 45 percent this past year alone. This increase does not account for the overwhelming number of sexual assaults that, historically, remain unreported, regardless of location or circumstance.
Meanwhile, when these incidents do occur, passengers receive scant formal support. Not only is there no centralized system for collecting reports of sexual assaults on flights, but there is no government agency responsible for tracking this data or creating regulations for how to best handle it. There is no body that administers any kind of specialized training to flight attendants, pilots, and other crewmembers for how best to respond to sexual assaults they witness or have reported to them. Presently, all reporting is essentially left up to the discretion of the crew; if a passenger notifies a flight attendant of an assault mid-flight, the crew have the option of asking police to meet a flight once it’s landed on the ground, reporting allegations of assault to the Federal Aviation Administration—or doing nothing at all.
Even when assaults are reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, they are simply classified as mid-flight disturbances, without any special categorization given to cases involving sexual violence.
This lack of any kind of formalized system has real effects on passengers who have survived in-flight assaults—like one of Senator Murray’s constituents, who contacted the lawmaker’s office to report having experienced such an ordeal. The letter to the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Justice details this woman’s story, explaining that after she reported being sexually assaulted on a long-distance flight, this woman was “provided a new seat for several hours, [before] she was ultimately asked by the flight attendants to return to her original seat next to her attacker for landing. When she refused, they seated another male passenger next to him, offering airline miles for his inconvenience.”
The letter continues, “Like many Americans, this passenger is often on long distance flights for work. Concerned with the response to her sexual assault, and under the impression that a report had been filed with the relevant authorities, she followed up with the airline. She was shocked to learn no report was filed.”
Which is where the letter sent by Senators Murray, Casey, and their Democratic colleagues comes into play.
Though Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) tried to pass passenger protection legislation back in 2014, her bill—which sought to ensure that the Federal Aviation Administration be required to collect and publish data on sexual assault—failed to make it out of committee for a vote, despite having garnered bipartisan support.
In the letter sent Monday, Murray, Casey and their colleagues request that the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Justice work across the federal government and industry to convene stakeholders and establish a working group with the relevant federal agencies (including airline employee unions, the airlines themselves, law enforcement, and sexual assault advocacy organizations); collect data to understand the prevalence of sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft; and identify, collect and develop federal rules, guidelines, and best practices for responding to sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft, including guidance on timely reporting.
The letter notes that current federal laws clearly illustrate that any attack that would be classified as criminal sexual abuse on the ground should be likewise classified “when committed in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.” And, the letter adds, “the Federal Aviation Administration … is tasked with carrying out duties related to aviation safety, including sexual assault.” The Senators write that they find the lack of training for flight attendants and crewmembers on how to handle sexual assault “troubling and unacceptable.”
“All passengers should be able to travel without the worry of being sexually assaulted,” the letter reads. “We must support those with authority, like flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots, to ensure that an incident of sexual assault is halted, prevent a repeated attack, support and help the survivor, and ensure the event is documented and reported to the proper authorities.”
Airline workers agree. “This is a unique crime and needs to be reported differently than an unruly passenger. Once we recognize the problem, we can work to stop or prevent these crimes from occurring onboard," says Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a labor union that represents 50,000 flight attendants at 18 airlines.
Garland added that the union supports establishing the type of cross-agency working group Murray and Casey propose "to identify the issues and gaps, and develop solutions to support survivors of sexual assault."
With the bill that grants the Federal Aviation Administration its legal authority set to expire in September 2017, discussions on how to reform it are anticipated to happen over the next year—a perfect opportunity to consider legislation that would better manage sexual assault in the skies.
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.