By Jessica pride
Published on
September 4, 2018
Last Updated
April 5, 2024

Sexual Assault on Airplanes

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Airplane sexual assaults are highly specific forms of assault that involve limited time and space for the violation to occur. They often involve repeat offenders who have calculated their processes. Understanding how these assaults are accomplished can help identify and prevent them.

Airline sexual assault usually takes the form of unwelcome touching, a felony that can land offenders in prison. But even with such steep consequences, criminals are undeterred and often go unpunished. This is part of the reason airline sexual assaults often involve repeat offenders. 

It is not uncommon for assault survivors to navigate the problem with little help due to a lack of support. If you or a loved one were sexually assaulted while on an airplane, contact us at (619) 516-8166 to discuss your situation in a completely private, confidential, and supportive consultation. 

Read on to learn more about the key issues behind airline sexual assault and what you can do if you’ve been attacked.

How To Prevent Sexual Assault on Airplanes

What options do passengers have to protect themselves from airline sexual assault?

Sexual assault attorney and survivor-advocate Jessica Pride shares her own tips for plane ride safety.   

  • Don’t accept drinks from strangers
  • Remember to stay hydrated
  • Be sure to lock the door and ensure no one is following you into the restroom
  • If you feel uncomfortable, hit the flight attendant call button immediately
  • Request to be moved to another seat, away from your harasser
  • Report any sexual assault to the airline
  • Request FBI agent and law enforcement assistance
  • Call an attorney for legal advice surrounding your situation

Contacting a qualified and experienced sexual assault attorney can help ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions, and that the survivor is fully compensated for their losses. A lawsuit can help with expenses such as medical treatment, therapy, pain and suffering, and other losses. 

How Sexual Assault on Airplanes Occurs

In an article posted in its Law Enforcement Bulletin, the FBI outlined one of the main reasons airline sexual assaults happen — they are often done by repeat offenders. Because flights last a relatively short period of time, perpetrators follow predictable patterns that involve a condensed version of grooming to accomplish the acts. Grooming follows six clearly defined steps:

  • Selecting a target person: They may often choose someone who is younger, flying alone, or is separated from their family or friends during a flight
  • Gaining the person’s trust: This can be done by appearing friendly, initiating conversation, or helping with luggage.
  • Filling a need the person has: For instance, they may offer to buy the person an in-flight drink.
  • Isolating the target: This can be done by blocking them from leaving their seat, following them to the bathroom, or other methods. Many assaults often happen when the cabin lights are dimmed.  
  • Initiating sexual contact: On an airplane, this may start with subtle contact happening at key moments, such as when a passenger has to squeeze by the person next to them to leave their seat. 
  • Maintaining control over the person: This can take the form of continuing to blockade the person, or issuing verbal threats. 

While grooming is usually framed in the context of child sexual assault, understanding these steps can help a person recognize techniques used by perpetrators while on an airplane. These are similar to other situations where a short-term interaction is involved, such as in a Lyft or Uber assault.  

The important thing to remember is that airline sexual assaults are frequently planned and rarely random. The perpetrator will take calculated actions to effectuate the assault. Thus, if you feel you are being “pushed along” towards actions or situations you are uncomfortable with, seek help from an attendant immediately. Alerting them helps to break the abuser’s pattern and disrupt their chain of control.

Airline Sexual Assault Has Become More Prevalent

Sexual assault aboard aircraft is a growing problem. Reports of sexual assault on commercial flights are increasing at “an alarming rate.”

sexual assault between 2014-2017

Many factors contribute to the prevalence of airline sexual assault. A lack of accountability onboard aircraft is the biggest issue. Passengers are stuck on the plane with nowhere to go while they are forced to sit next to strangers. When it comes to personal space—there simply isn’t any on airplanes.

Long international flights seem to bring out the worst in people. With hours in a dark cabin, many may be drinking or using sleeping aids and passengers can become easy targets for sexual predators. Assailants have also been known to assault passengers while pretending to be asleep; for instance, placing their hand on them while they appear to be sleeping. 

A passenger might ask the flight attendant for a seat change when problems arise. But when a flight is at capacity, changing seats is sometimes not an option. A lack of airline protocol makes managing difficult events like sexual assault distressing.

Causes of Mid-Air Sexual Assault

Because midair sexual assaults often go unreported, the FBI does not know the exact number. In a 2016 study by The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, 2,000 flight attendants were surveyed. Out of those who responded, 1 of 5 received a passenger complaint about sexual assault, but law enforcement was contacted less than half the time.

“In my 22 years as a flight attendant, I have never taken part in a conversation — in training or otherwise — about how to handle sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

– Sara Nelson, flight attendant for United Airlines 

Just as troubling is the fact that flight attendants are not properly trained to handle events of criminal behavior. According to union president/United Airlines flight attendant Sara Nelson, “In my 22 years as a flight attendant, I have never taken part in a conversation — in training or otherwise — about how to handle sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

Because flight attendants lack the necessary training to handle such incidents, predators are not being punished for sexual assault and have incentive to continue their behavior without experiencing any repercussions for it.

airline sexual assault

Incidents of Airline Sexual Assault

Several women have publicly come forward with heart-breaking and infuriating stories of airline sexual assault.

Katy Campos

In 2018, a man was arrested after a United Airlines flight from Newark to Buffalo, New York. He was accused of sexually assaulting two women, one of which was Katy Campos. Campos explained her ordeal in detail, “He grabbed my upper thigh in the crotch area, and he grabbed it pretty forcefully.”

United Airlines claims that they stand behind their “zero-tolerance” policy for this type of behavior. But Campos explained that after reporting the man’s behavior, the flight attendant did not offer to move her to a different seat. Instead, she had to demand it. Campos did get to change seats; however, she was placed directly behind her perpetrator where the molestation continued.

Campos took to Twitter where she shared about her experience:

“Was sexually harassed on a United flight. Shocked by the lack of coordinated response by United to ensure passenger safety. The man kept touching me until the very end.” She ended her tweet with the hashtag #DoBetter.

“If someone reports a crime to an airline, then it should be flagged. It should not be treated as lost luggage.”

– Allison Dvaladze, airline sexual assault survivor

Allison Dvaladze

In April 2016, Allison Dvaladze filed a complaint with Delta after her flight from Seattle to Amsterdam.

As she explained, “I was dozing off when I felt a hand in my crotch and realized the man next to me was grabbing my crotch.” She explained that during her flight, “there was not a clear procedure for what they should do. They asked me what I wanted them to do.”

The airline offered her 10,000 miles to compensate for her experience, but Dvaladze felt the offer was unacceptable. “If someone reports a crime to an airline, then it should be flagged. It should not be treated as lost luggage.”

Unfortunately, without a proper protocol in place, countless unsuspecting passengers fall prey to perpetrators aboard aircraft, and often, the matter is left unresolved.

Protecting Yourself Against Airline Sexual Assault

The FBI is actively raising awareness about the issue of airline sexual assault in an effort to help people protect themselves and report incidents immediately.

The FBI suggests the following precautions:

  • Act swiftly. Don’t give the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt and assume their behavior was an accident. Reprimand them immediately and ask to be moved to another seat.
  • Play it safe. Mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or medication increases your risk.
  • Keep the armrest down if your seatmate is a stranger, no matter how nice he or she may seem.
  • Pick an aisle seat for children to keep a close watch on them.

Report incidents of sexual assault immediately to the flight crew and request that they record the perpetrator’s identity and report the incident.

Get Legal Help and Speak With an Experienced Sexual Assault Attorney

Sexual assault is a criminal act. Sexual assault survivors have the right to pursue justice in both criminal and civil courts.

Were you or a loved one sexually assaulted on an airline? You are not alone. It’s not your fault and there is something you can do about it.

Attorney Jessica Pride has represented countless survivors of abuse, empowering them to transform their lives. Speak with Jessica Pride today at ​(619) 516-8166 for a free, private consultation and take the first step towards regaining your peace and confidence.

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