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Female airplane passenger
07 September 2016

What Happens When A Sexual Assault Occurs On A Flight?

The United States F.B.I. reported 170 crimes were committed aboard airplanes in 2014. The F.B.I. is responsible for handling all crimes that occur on flights that have a destination in the United States, no matter where those flights originate. If you are wondering how many of those crimes were sexual assault, we may never know. While reporting a crime during a flight sounds easy, the actual numbers of sexual assaults that are prosecuted are relatively unknown.

Sexual Assualt: Danger In The SkiesFemale airplane passenger

One of the ways that flight attendants attempt to calm passengers when it comes to crimes committed during a passenger flight; is to tell the passengers that criminals cannot commit their crimes and get away because they are all locked in the same plane. But, how reassuring is that particular statement when the attendants themselves are not properly trained on how to handle a sexual assault?

According to Slate.com, flight attendants are trained to handle “deranged persons” and prevent situations from escalating. However, there is no specific training done by any of the major airlines in terms of addressing sexual assaults. The most common scenario for sexual assaults on a passenger flight includes late-night flights where unaccompanied female passengers attempt to sleep while the flight is in the air. During these moments, women can be assaulted without any real witnesses and without any assistance from flight attendants.

The incidents that have been reported over the years are frightening. During a flight to Japan from Hawaii, passengers and flight attendants had to rip the door off the airplane’s bathroom to rescue a woman from a violent assault. Another famous case has a Catholic priest going to federal prison after being convicted of groping a young female passenger on a flight to Los Angeles. These incidents happen, but they are not always reported.

The Problem With Reporting An Assault

When a passenger reports a sexual assault, the flight crew must alert the pilot, who then decides what course of action to take. It has been reported that communication between the flight crew and pilots is not as sharp as it should be, and many of these incidents wind up not being reported because the pilots were never properly made aware of the situations.

The other problem is that a pilot would have to divert a flight to make an immediate arrest for a sexual assault. Such a diversion can cost upwards of $100,000 or more to an airline. Pilots will often ask flight attendants to move problem passengers instead of making a full report to officials on the ground.

In some countries, the form of sexual assault taking place on airplanes is not considered a priority event. This was the case for an American female passenger who reported a sexual assault to German officials and was told by the officials that the conduct was merely rude, and not an assault. By the time the F.B.I. gets involved in these cases, most of the witnesses have already left the airport and getting the victims to pursue prosecution without witnesses can be difficult.

Who Is At Risk Of Being Assaulted On Flights?Aeroplane aisle

While none of the American government agencies involved with keeping crime statistics for airplane flights have solid numbers for sexual assaults during flights, the truth is that these types of assaults do happen. While violent assaults such as the incident reported on the flight to Japan are rare, the more clandestine assaults that women attempt to report to the police and flight attendants do happen every year.

The truth is that flight crews are ill-prepared to handle sexual assaults in the air, and the process for reporting assaults does not make it easy for authorities on the ground to make arrests. If the police are not called immediately by the pilot through the flight control authorities at the destination, then an assailant could simply walk off a plane and never be charged. In the meantime, the victim is left to re-live the event for the rest of their lives.

Women on long flights should be prepared to defend themselves if something does occur. If a victim persists with complaints of an assault during a flight, then the flight crew will take measures to try and separate the victim from the assailant. But when it comes to making sure that victims of airplane sexual assaults get justice, there is still much work for governments around the world and the major airlines to do.