Women if you ever felt that you were safe on your next plane ride think again. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has jurisdiction over flights terminating in the US from the moment the doors close to the time they reopen, logged 170 crimes aboard aircraft in 2014. There have been 169 cases so far this year. The agency doesn’t share how many of those were sexual assaults.
But the cases that make it to court suggest that sexual assault occurs on airplanes more often than most people probably realize.
The FBI suggests that women traveling alone avoid alcohol, sleep-inducing drugs, and sleep itself to guard against attacks on long flights.
Last year, a flight en route to Japan had to return to Hawaii after a male passenger barged into a restroom and attempted to rape a female passenger. The woman managed to push the emergency button; crew had to remove the door to stop the assault and restrain the attacker. That kind of conspicuous violence is rare, said Robert Hughes, chief of the FBI’s section overseeing in-flight crime. Most sexual assault cases involve perpetrators groping passengers they believe to be sleeping—typically on long flights, when it’s dark and there are fewer people walking the aisles.
In September, a 57-year-old man pleaded not guilty to molesting a girl flying alone on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to New York. A Catholic priest was sentenced to federal prison in August for groping a female seatmate on a flight to Los Angeles. Publicized cases like these stretch back years. In 2005, the former leader of Hawaii’s House of Representatives resigned after being found guilty of abusive sexual conduct for fondling a woman on an airplane.
After four sexual assault cases were reported on planes landing in the Washington DC metro area, congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a bill in 2014 requiring the FAA to collect data on sexual assault in passenger airplanes. It failed to pass.
If a person is subjected to unwanted touching or other crime on board an aircraft, they should tell a flight attendant as soon as possible, Hughes said. Alleged perpetrators and witnesses to the crime are much harder to find once everyone has left the plane.
Once informed of a crime on board, flight attendants tell the pilot, who decides whether the airplane should continue to its destination or divert to another airport. They also alert air traffic control at the arriving airport, which coordinates law-enforcement authorities that can meet the plane upon landing and make any necessary arrests. “A lot of times these crimes go unreported because the victim feels ashamed, they feel intimidated by the person sitting next to them,” Hughes said. “The key is to report it immediately.” He also suggested that women traveling alone avoid alcohol, sleep-inducing drugs, and sleep itself to guard against attacks on long flights.
Did you ever imagine that sexual crimes could take place on an airplane?