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Unsafe skies: Sexual assaults on airliners a growing problem

Sexual assaults on commercial airline flights are a growing concern. (KOMO)

SEATTLE (KOMO) - You expect for safety to be the top priority every time you board a flight, but there are growing concerns about sexual assaults against passengers on commercial airlines. A local woman who says she was sexually assaulted on a flight last year has launched a campaign to raise awareness about the issue in hopes of getting the government and airlines to take notice and address it.

Allison Dvaladze travels regularly for work and says nothing seemed out of the ordinary on her flight to Uganda in February 2016. As she started to fall asleep, though, she says the passenger next to her grabbed her crotch. “I was disoriented, yelled and hit his hand and almost immediately he grabbed me again.” Dvaladze says she fought him off, but he grabbed her a second and third time before she was able to get out of her seat and contact the flight crew. “The crew was very supportive. They were very understanding. What came out to me right away, what became apparent, was that they don’t have training in how to handle the situation. One of the things they asked me right away was, 'What do you want us to do?' And my response was, 'What are you supposed to do?'”

That experience led Dvaladze to share her story and start a Facebook page for her campaign: Protect Airline Passengers From Sexual Assault Now. The page began as a place to share articles about similar cases. Dvaladze began getting messages from around the world from people who said they’d also been sexually assaulted on commercial flights.

The problem of sexual assaults on flights is one not commonly talked about, but reports are becoming more frequent.

(You can read abut those incidents here. And here. Also here. And here. )

“It never occurred to me while flying on a plane that these things happen,” Dvaladze noted, which is why she reached out to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “When someone like Allison calls and says something happened to me and you think, 'That’s not right.'"

Murray’s office sent letters signed by 22 other senators to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Justice, highlighting Dvaladze’s story and urging the need for standards, training and protocol when it comes to addressing, reporting and preventing sexual assaults on flights. “I think the most important thing is that if you are getting on an airplane, you know that if something bad happens to you, sexual assault in this case, it will be reported so it won’t happen again,” says Murray.

Currently, there are no federal requirements for airlines to train cabin crews on how to handle sexual assaults, and no federal agency tracks the issue. The FBI records only airline sexual assaults that have been reported and investigated. Those numbers have increased from 40 in 2015 to 57 in 2016. The Department of Transportation tracks airline complaints in a monthly report. It includes complaints about things like lost baggage and delayed flights. However, there is no category to cover sexual assaults. Any complaints related to that issue would most likely fall under the category “other” and the subcategory “others not categorized above.”

KOMO News reached out to 14 airlines to ask how they track sexual assaults and train their crews to handle them: American, Delta, United, Alaska, British Airways, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Hawaiian, Emirates, Korean Air and All Nippon Airways. Seven airlines either didn’t respond or refused to comment. Of those that did, Hawaiian, American and Southwest airlines confirmed they keep records of reported assaults but do not release them. Only Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines specifically mentioned assault or sexual assault in their response about flight crew training. The more common response is that airline crews are taught how to respond to “unruly” or “disruptive” passengers by separating them and notifying the captain. (You can see all the airlines' responses at the bottom of this story.)

Dvaladze points out: “Responding to a disruptive passenger and responding to a victim of sexual assault are two entirely different issues that require totally different responses.”

The Association of Flight Attendants represents 50,000 people worldwide. The union and its President Sara Nelson support expanding training to include how to respond to sexual assaults. “We find that sexual assault is a unique crime that needs to be identified as a unique crime and that everyone at the airline needs to understand it’s happening and that it needs to be reported.” Earlier this year, the AFA sent a seven-question survey out to its membership about sexual assaults on flights. From the nearly 2,000 responses it learned:

  • 1 in 5 flight attendants has experienced a report of a mid-flight sexual assault between passengers
  • Law enforcement was contacted or met the plane only 40 percent of the time
  • 56 percent of respondents report no knowledge of any written guidance or training on dealing with sexual assaults available through their airline

"Across the board, our members told us even when the written guidelines are there in their manual, they are not aware of them, so there needs to be a heightened awareness for the flight crew, for responders on the ground,” Nelson says. If a flight attendant does report a sexual assault to the pilot, the pilot would then report it to controllers on the ground, who are then supposed to contact law enforcement to meet the plane. “If anyone of those people along the line either become too busy, makes a judgment call about whether or not law enforcement should be called, that can fail then to be reported and responded to.”

In Dvaladze’s case, she eventually learned the flight crew never filed a report, and after pressing the airline for more information, she received a final response: “We actually have no record of anything on your flight, so we consider this a closed issue.”

There are many theories about why mid-flight sexual assaults are being reported more often. Dvaladze, Murray and Nelson all mention the shrinking size of seats as something providing more opportunity for would-be offenders. With airlines attempting to get more people on flights, passengers are put closer together. A passenger-advocacy group, Flyers Rights, is currently suing the FAA over the shrinking sizes of airline seats, claiming it can also be a health hazard. The group's research says seat sizes have reduced from an average of 18.5 inches in the early 2000s to just 17 inches, and sometimes even less. Nelson says this change also makes it more difficult for flight attendants to keep a clear line of sight on all passengers and spot potential red flags.

There is a growing effort to address mid-flight sexual assaults. In a written response to Sen. Murray’s letter last fall, the Department of Justice says it is working with several other government agencies to identify and develop best practices to address sexual assaults on commercial flights. Murray is also among 20 U.S. lawmakers who are co-sponsoring the SAFE Act, or Stopping Assault While Flying Enforcement Act, which was introduced in July. Murray says the goal is “to require training for employees to know what to do, to require reporting, which currently doesn’t happen, which is surprising, and to require consistency so all airlines are following the same regulations.”

Murray credits people like Dvaladze who are willing to share their story to bring attention to a serious problem: “It’s those personal stories that really make a difference that bring it to attention, people willing to stand up, tell a story that’s not fun, to tell that can make changes for everyone.”

Dvaladze hopes it encourages others to step up, “If you see someone who’s trying to make a difference, make a change, support them, encourage them. They’re doing something not just for them, but for everybody.”

KOMO News reached out to 14 airlines for this story. These are their responses:

Southwest Airlines:

We take the protections of our Customers very seriously, and Safety is at the forefront of everything we do at Southwest Airlines. Our Flight Attendants are trained to take care of a wide range of sensitive Customer issues.
Our Crews are trained on self-defense tactics for various types of assaults. Depending on the situation, our protocols do include separating individuals and providing the proper notifications.
We do not release this information. (regarding tracking sexual assaults)
Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants receive self-defense training that prepares them to handle various types of assault. The flight Crew is immediately notified if an assault occurs and necessary training and resources are used to protect everyone onboard.

Delta Airlines:

Delta takes reports of harassment very seriously. When we become aware of incidents onboard, we always investigate so appropriate action may be taken, coordinating with local law enforcement when requested by the customer and crew. Our crews are trained for situational awareness. If an incident results in harassment of any kind toward another customer, flight attendants will immediately find another seat for the customer and conduct an investigation.

Alaska Airlines:

Yes, this is part of recurrent training. (regarding whether crew is trained on how to prevent, identify, react to sexual assaults)
Alaska has a robust training curriculum supporting threat management. The objectives cover how to identify, remain safe and manage multiple scenarios (e.g. disruptive passengers, suspicious behaviors, including assault.) The training content covers de-escalation techniques, personal protective measures. Alaska is proud of the mock-up training equipment we use to ensure our Flight Attendants have realistic learning environment to role play and build their skills in these rare circumstances.
Alaska’s Inflight Training team works closely with multiple agencies including the TSA’s Federal Air Marshall Service and local law enforcement to maintain a level of expertise in line with current events.

Hawaiian Airlines:

We take allegations of any abuse in flight very seriously. For physical abuse allegations, including sexual assault, our flight attendants are trained, on a range of scenarios, to protect the passengers and crew and keep them safe. In the event of an allegation of any physical assault in flight including sexual assault, the crew would immediately separate the parties and simultaneously report the matter to the Captain. The crew are also required to prepare and submit a written incident report within 24 hours of landing. The ground security coordinator who meets the plane with the local law enforcement officers is also required to submit an incident report. As part of our standard protocol, for flights involving reported allegations of any physical abuse including sexual assault, local law enforcement officers are called ahead to meet the plane.

Lufthansa Airline:

Our crews are fundamentally trained to deal with "unruly" passengers. Statistics are not maintained. The relevant reports are handed over to the authorities.

American Airlines:

If our crews – flight attendants and/or pilots – discover or are told about any alleged illegal misconduct that may occur on the aircraft, law enforcement is contacted and will meet the aircraft upon arrival. In all cases of misconduct between two passengers, we will immediately separate them, and request law enforcement meet the aircraft.

Spirit Airlines: No response

Emirates Airlines: No comment

JetBlue: No comment

Air Canada: No response

United Airlines: No response

British Airways: No response

All Nippon Airways: No comment

Korean Airlines: No response

Airlines for America (trade association and lobbying group):

The safety and security of our passengers and crewmembers are our highest priority. Airlines have processes and procedures in place for crewmembers to report observed and/or reported criminal activity that occurs on board the aircraft to the FAA and appropriate law enforcement authorities, who are responsible for recording such incidents and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of offenders.

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