Feds ignored reports of sexual assaults of airline passengers, consumer group charges

On January 1, 2017, a woman flying from Seattle to New York City on a Delta Air Lines flight was allegedly assaulted by her seatmate mid-trip. The apparently-intoxicated man had nearly been removed from the flight before take-off but was ultimately allowed to sit next to her, the woman wrote later in a complaint to the airline. An hour into the flight he put his hand in her lap before forcefully grabbing her face in an assault, she says.

“Even though he was belligerent and appeared to be intoxicated, he was allowed to stay to ‘sleep it off,’” she wrote in a complaint to the airline. Delta Air Lines

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  allowed her to move seats but did not file a report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which investigates assaults on airplanes, she said. “Delta has been very nonresponsive and seemingly confused about what to do,” she wrote. Delta did not respond to a request for comment.

The victim’s story is one of 20 that came to light after a public records request by FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit that advocates for airline passengers. The group’s report comes months after the FBI warned the public that assaults on planes have increased at “an alarming rate.” Complaints to the FBI increased from 38 in 2014 to 63 in 2017, according to the FlyersRights report. The Department of Transportation told MarketWatch it has received a total of 32 sexual assault complaints since November 2016, when it started tracking them.

“These complaints show in graphic detail what is happening with increasing frequency,” Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a former counsel to the New York State Crime Victims Board, said. “It is but a small sample of the hundreds to thousands of sexual abuse incidents that are vastly underreported and rarely prosecuted.”

Also see: After man is arrested for groping passenger, women speak about #MeToo at 35,000 feet

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, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. The FBI did not respond to request for comment. When a complaint is filed to the Department of Transportation, it directs the airline to respond directly and encourages consumers to contact the FBI for investigation, because criminal investigations are not under the purview of the Department of Transportation, a DOT spokesman told MarketWatch.

Often airplane crews has little training regarding the handling of these crimes. While one in five flight attendants has witnessed a passenger being assaulted or had an assault reported to them, the vast majority of them have no specific training regarding sexual assault, a 2017 survey of nearly 2,000 flight attendants found.

The issue has been brought into focus by #MeToo, the movement highlighting women’s experiences with sexual assault and harassment across a variety of industries.

“Due to no mandatory reporting or recordkeeping by airlines, no way for the victim to directly and timely report the crimes to law enforcement, coupled with a 4 to 5 step reporting process of the airlines frustrating most investigations, nothing is usually done,” Hudson said

In many of the cases that FlyersRights.org uncovered, police were not called to meet the plane at the airport to address the alleged assailant, FlyersRights.org said. One possible reason for that: in order 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, according to FlyersRights.org.

“On landing I asked them for help and call 911 but [the flight crew] refused to assist,” one victim wrote. “Next day JetBlue supervisor actually suggested this was my problem.” JetBlue

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  told MarketWatch its crewmembers are instructed to follow specific procedures including reassigning seats, increasing cabin walk-throughs and notifying law enforcement in the case of incidents of sexual assault.

“The safety and security of our customers is our top priority and we take reports of unwanted touching or sexual assault very seriously,” JetBlue said. “We regularly evaluate our procedures to incorporate best practices for handling these matters.”

In another case involving Delta Air Lines

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flight attendants told a victim that it was “difficult” to address a man who was drunk and harassing her because “he is a Diamond or Platinum member,” according to FlyersRights.org.

“This was extremely offensive to me as it was essentially saying he is too important to reprimand,” the victim said in a complaint to the airline.

FBI has warned passengers to protect themselves by being “air aware.” It advises passengers not to lift the armrest between seats, “recognize that mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or other medication on an overnight flight increases your risk,” and to immediately report any issues.

“The attacks generally occur on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark,” the FBI wrote in a blog post. “The victims are usually in middle or window seats, sleeping and covered with a blanket or jacket. They report waking up to their seat mate’s hands inside their clothing or underwear.”

A spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group representing major airlines, said employees receive “extensive” customer service training to ensure safety and that carriers have well-defined processes in place to report criminal activity on board to appropriate law enforcement authorities.

“Our members take these matters seriously and do not tolerate harassment in any form,” Airlines for America spokeswoman Alison McAfee said. “Airlines strive to make sure every employee has a safe working environment and every passenger has a safe and pleasant travel experience and disruptive or inappropriate behavior towards crew or passengers is dealt with as promptly as possible.”

The issue has the attention of lawmakers. Congress has directed the DOT to create a National In-Flight Sexual Assault Task Force, to be appointed by DOT Secretary Elaine Chao through the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which was enacted on October 5. The task force members are expected to be announced on January 16, 2019.

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Kari Paul is a personal finance reporter based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @kari_paul.

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