FlyersRights.org has released 20 detailed passenger complaints of in-flight sexual assaults made to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), obtained pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests, and posted them on its website at: https://flyersrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/DOT-Sexual-Assault-Records.pdf.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a former counsel to the NYS Crime Victims Board, noted, “These complaints show in graphic detail what is happening with increasing frequency- Mainly on long haul flights with lots of alcohol and usually to women traveling alone. It is but a small sample of the hundreds to thousands of sexual abuse incidents that are vastly underreported and rarely prosecuted.”
“In-flight sexual abuse is punishable by up to 10 years in prison plus fines and mandatory restitution under Chapter 109A of the Federal Criminal Code. The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI have jurisdiction. But due to no mandatory reporting or recordkeeping by airlines, there is no way for the victim to directly and timely report the crimes to law enforcement, coupled with a 4 to 5 step reporting procedures of the airlines frustrating most investigations, nothing is usually done.”
Here are some examples:
Cathay Pacific Passenger #1 awoke to an opened blouse and a passenger “grinding his body, and…on top of her.” And what has become an all-too-common occurrence for many other victims, “police did not meet the plane.”
Delta Passenger #2 discovered that the airline did not retain any records of her assault when a belligerent and seemingly intoxicated passenger was almost removed pre-flight when “a flight attendant intervened…and he was allowed to ‘sleep it off.'”
Swiss Air Passenger #3 woke up twice to another passenger “chewing on [her] neck and kissing [her], hands trying to get under [her] shirt.” The flight attendants did not reseat the passenger, as the flight was completely full.
United Passenger #4 was seated next to and assaulted by a drunk passenger who had already harassed a flight attendant as the passenger was “escorted…to seat 38D.” The flight attendants warned her as the drunk passenger was seated, but he was later permitted to purchase “3 Jack Daniels and 1 wine.”
Complaints to the FBI increased from 38 in 2014 to 63 in 2017, while the DOT collected 20 complaints from 2012 through 2017. To have law enforcement meet the victim, perpetrator, and witnesses at the plane upon arrival, a complaint must go through four to five steps, involving a flight attendant, the captain, the airline ground crew, and the airline station manager. When law enforcement has showed up, the Offices of the United States Attorneys often do not prosecute the case. The FBI has no method to monitor how many cases were prosecuted by local and state prosecutors.
Sexual assault is more likely to occur on cramped, long-haul, and red-eye flights with darkened cabins where there are fewer passengers who are awake and have a line of sight as witnesses to a sexual assault. Shockingly, many of the complaints to the DOT involved intoxicated passengers who were served alcohol on the plane. Notoriously, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 exempts airlines from state Dram Shop laws, which place strict liability for the actions of intoxicated patrons on the businesses that serve them alcoholic beverages.
FlyersRights.org formally called on the Obama Administration to address this issue in 2016, then again to the FAA and its Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee in 2017 and to Congress in 2018. But so far no action has been taken. On November 19th FlyersRights.org president Paul Hudson and the Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson finally were able to meet with FBI and Justice Department officials. In the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 enacted on October 5th, Congress created a National In-Flight Sexual Assault Task Force to be appointed by DOT Secretary Elaine Chao. The task force members are expected to be announced on January 16, 2019.