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Airlines Launch Effort to Combat Sexual Harassment of Flight Attendants by Passengers

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says “the time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded.”

In recent months, a number of high-profile harassment incidents highlighted the problem of sexual assaults of airline passengers. Yet a new study shows that passengers aren’t the only ones as risk: flight attendants also regularly experience sexual harassment and assault by passengers.

In fact, it happens every day, according to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), a union comprised of 50,000 members. As Nelson clarified, that abuse may not happen on every flight, but “every day in the airline industry flight attendants are dealing with this issue.”
Nelson has demanded that airlines make a concerted effort to stamp out sexual misconduct on planes by establishing reporting procedures and training. Her union has also called on airline CEOs to send a clear message that they are committed to “changing the culture in aviation.”

“Harassment of flight attendants is legendary, but this survey shows just how commonplace it remains even during the #MeToo era,” said Nelson. “It’s time for all of us – airlines, unions, regulators, legislators and passengers – to put a stop to behaviors that can no longer be condoned.”

Nelson said that three airlines – Alaska, United and Spirit – deserve kudos for the steps they’ve already taken to address the problem. But unfortunately, the rest of the industry has remained silent despite extensive and routine abuse reported throughout the business.

Over 3,500 flight attendants working at 29 U.S. airlines took part in the AFA survey. Of those, more than 65% said they’ve experienced sexual harassment in-flight, and in the workplace more generally.

More than one in three flight attendants report experiences of verbal sexual harassment from passengers during the past year, with comments and propositions they characterize as nasty, crude, and suggestive. And one in five have suffered from physical harassment, including having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area groped, both on top of and beneath their uniforms.
Late last year, Silicon Valley executive Randi Zuckerberg was sexually assaulted on an Alaska Airlines flight from Los Angeles. The problem was further highlighted by the story of Alison Dvaladze, who had been assaulted on a Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam in 2016 and who this year sued the airline.

The CEOs of Alaska, United and Spirit have all issued public letters stating that such behavior will not be tolerated on their aircraft. Nelson explained that all three are working with the AFA and putting resources into improved policies, reporting procedures and sexual harassment training.

During an update last month, Alaska CEO Brad Tilden said the Seattle-based airline now has training for all employees intended to prevent sexual harassment, and is developing onboard resources that will clarify how passengers can support each other as well as the cabin crews in the case of an incident.

“Sexual harassment and assault have absolutely no place in our workplace, on board our flights, or any place,” Tilden wrote in a blog post on Alaska’s website.” The broader the effort, the better we’ll foster a society in which all people are treated well.”

“The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the problems of sexual assaults by passengers on other passengers is closely related to the assaults on cabin crew. Part of what emerged from cases such as Dvaladze’s on the Delta flight is that flight crews typically had no definitive policy to respond and no clear procedure for reporting these incidents of abuse of passengers.

The same applied to flight attendants, who in many cases have dealt with personal harassment only by avoiding the offending passenger and not even reporting it, Nelson said. But now that flight attendants are expected to be the enforcers who respond appropriately to victimization of passengers, they need the same protection for themselves.

She said the AFA wants to create a culture on flights where sexual misbehavior is known to be unacceptable and will have consequences. “We need to talk about this as disgusting behavior that will not be tolerated,” she said.

Nelson said she’s encouraged that a bill in Congress calling for a stakeholder panel to come up with best practices to address the problem, a bill advanced by Senator Patty Murray, has won the attention of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“We did hear from Secretary Chao that she intends to get moving on this,” Nelson said. “We haven’t yet seen evidence of movement.”
In addition to clear public statements from airline CEOs and the introduction of policies and training for flight crews, she said future actions could also include education of passengers through signs at check-in, public service announcements at airports and statements about respectful conduct tucked into inflight safety briefings.

Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an alert to the public and placed posters at airports that read: “Be Air Aware: Sexual Assault on Aircraft is a Federal Crime.”

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