Casey, Murray, 21 Senate Democrats Urge FAA and DOJ to Protect Women from Sexual Assault on Airplanes

Casey, Murray, 21 Senate Democrats Urge FAA and DOJ to Protect Women from Sexual Assault on Airplanes

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), and 21 of their fellow Senators including Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Gary Peters (D-MI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) urging them to strengthen airline requirements to ensure airline personnel protect women on board from sexual assault. The letter follows a constituent’s personal story and shocking media reports detailing additional firsthand experiences showing airlines are ill-equipped to handle accusations of sexual assault on airplanes. 

“As our country continues to combat the threat of violence against women, it is critical that no space be immune to the protections and support we afford survivors of sexual assault,” the Senators write. “We must do all we can to ensure passengers’ rights and health are protected, flight crews are fully trained and equipped to handle sexual assaults, and that pertinent information is being reported to law enforcement to ensure justice.”

The full text of the letter is below.

Dear Attorney General Lynch and Administrator Huerta:

As our country continues the fight to end violence against women, it is critical that no space be exempt from protection or devoid of support for survivors of sexual assault. We write to express our deep concern that airplanes appear to be just such a place.  Specifically, we are concerned with the apparent lack of standards and support provided to airline personnel about how to address and respond to incidents of sexual harassment and assault aboard commercial aircraft. We urge you to review, clarify, and develop requirements for airlines to ensure flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots who may have to respond to an incident while aboard the aircraft are prepared to support the survivor and take the steps necessary to hold the alleged perpetrator accountable.

Recently, one of our offices heard from an individual who was sexually assaulted on a long distance flight, and although she was provided a new seat for several hours, she was ultimately asked by the flight attendants to return to her original seat next to her attacker for landing. When she refused, they seated another male passenger next to him, offering airline miles for his inconvenience. Like many Americans, this passenger is often on long distance flights for work. Concerned with the response to her sexual assault, and under the impression that a report had been filed with the relevant authorities, she followed up with the airline. She was shocked to learn no report was filed. Unfortunately, the experience of this individual does not seem to be an isolated incident, as recent media reports have highlighted underreporting by airlines, apparent inadequacies in airline responses, and a lack of policy and guidance to address the issue.[1]

Federal law makes clear that sexual abuse offenses that are criminal under 18 U.S.C. are also criminal when committed in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.[2] Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with carrying out duties related to aviation safety, including sexual assault.[3] We believe the federal government has a role to play in the safety of passengers and crewmembers that experience sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft. The primary role of the flight attendants and crewmembers is safety, however, we understand many may not be sufficiently trained to recognize and respond appropriately to an in-flight case of sexual assault or harassment. Although the FAA has regulations that outline the required training programs for flight attendants and crewmembers, there are no explicit guidelines for handling sexual assault.

We find this troubling and unacceptable. The National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that women experience approximately 270,000 sexual assaults each year, and more than 90 percent of sexual assaults recorded are committed against women.[4] The aftermath of a violent or sexual crime can be psychologically, physically, or financially devastating for a survivor. Long distance flights often occur overnight. There are extended periods where no flight attendants walk through the aircraft cabin, and many guests sleep before landing in a different time zone. Such characteristics could make long distance flights a particularly hazardous place for travelers by presenting a prime opportunity for these crimes to occur. All passengers should be able to travel without the worry of being sexually assaulted. We must support those with authority, like flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots, to ensure that an incident of sexual assault is halted, prevent a repeated attack, support and help the survivor, and ensure the event is documented and reported to the proper authorities.

It is critical that we work together to immediately identify, understand, and address the issue of sexual harassment and assault aboard commercial aircraft. Given the broad scope of the issue, we request the FAA and U.S. Department of Justice work across the federal government and industry to:

  • Convene stakeholders and establish a working group with the relevant federal agencies; unions representing flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots; airlines; Office of Victims of Crime; law enforcement; and sexual assault advocacy organizations to discuss and identify the issues and gaps, and develop policy solutions to support survivors of sexual assault;
  • Collect data to understand the prevalence of sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft among passengers, flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots; and
  • Identify, collect, and develop federal rules, guidelines and best practices for responding to sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft, including guidance on timely reporting.

We must do all we can to ensure passengers’ rights and health are protected, flight crews are fully trained and equipped to handle sexual assaults, and that pertinent information is being reported to law enforcement to ensure justice.  We appreciate all the work you do to ensure our national airways are safe and reliable.  Thank you for your consideration of our views.

[1] Nora Caplan-Bricker, Flight Risk, Slate (August 31, 2016, 5:58AM) (http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2016/08/what_happens_when_sexual_assault_happens_on_a_long_haul_flight.html); Nicole Bitette, Oregon Man Charged with Sexually Assaulting 13-year-old girl on American Airlines Flight, New York Daily News (June 20, 2016) (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/man-charged-sexually-assaulting-13-year-old-girl-flight-article-1.2681080)

[2] U.S. Attorneys' Manual, Criminal Resource Manual, Certain Crimes Aboard Aircraft in Flight §1412.

[3] 49 U.S.C.A. § 106(g)(A); Chapter 465 includes 49 U.S.C.A. § 46506.

[4] Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvsv9410.pdf .