Experts Explain Why Sexual Assaults Occur On Airplanes & What Airlines Can Do To Stop It

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It seems like every few months brings a new story about sexual assault on an airline flight. In March, a woman on a flight from Tampa to Toronto claimed she was sexually assaulted by a fellow passenger. In April, a woman was reportedly groped by an intoxicated man on a flight while her daughter sat right next to her, and the flight attendants kept bringing the man alcohol. In July, a woman claimed she woke up to a man masturbating next to her on an American Airlines flight. And these are just the reports that make it into the news — meaning that it’s likely that many more incidents occur without attracting media publicity.

Though they told Slate that they had “40 open cases involving sexual assaults on aircraft in 2015,” the FBI doesn’t specifically track airplane sexual assault in their national crime statistics. And there’s no record of how many reports are made to local authorities instead of the FBI — or to crews who then don’t pass the information on to law enforcement at all. Airlines themselves, according to a specialist investigation in 2014, habitually refuse to disclose their own statistics about sexual assault incidents on board their planes. Add this to the fact that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, period, and it begins to seem like the issue is much larger than many had previously realized.

In fact, not understanding the scope of the issue is one of the biggest obstacles preventing airlines from making progress. “Part of the problem,” Sara Nelson, international president of the flight attendant association AWA-CFA , tells Bustle, “is that we don’t have a full understanding of how much of a problem this is on our planes. We have anecdotal information, we have reports from some passengers who have been willing to stand up, but this is a unique crime, and the victims of it have unique needs.” So how do we combat a sexual assault problem when we’re not even sure of its scope? Bustle talked to several experts about why sexual assaults occur on airplanes — and what airlines can do to make air travel safer for women.

Why Do So Many Sexual Assaults Occur On Planes?

Though we often think of planes as extremely safe, protected, and highly regulated spaces, there are several factors that sexual predators on planes often utilize to their advantage. “We have people crammed together in closer spaces than ever before,” Nelson tells Bustle. Airline seats have become smaller (average seat size has dropped from 18 inches across to 17 inches over the past decade), meaning flights contain more passengers in closer quarters than in the past — which can provide cover for abuse and assault. “You would think that with more people in a confined space that it would be harder for somebody to commit a crime,” says Nelson, “but in an assault like this, oftentimes it’s easier, because it’s harder for people to see, the close space and the seats pressed together make it hard for viewing, and the victims of this sometimes will not realize what’s happening until it gets to a point of obviously unacceptable. There can be an ‘oops factor’ —[a person committing an assault will tell the victim] ‘I accidentally touched your leg.’ That’s problematic.”

The staff-to-customer ratio in plane cabins can also make it more difficult for flight attendants to monitor. “[The number of people in close spaces on planes is] also problematic,” Nelson notes, “because flight attendants’ ability to view it is diminished, and there are fewer flight attendants than ever, both in airlines in the US and in European carriers. Most are staffing at minimums, so we don’t have as many eyes in the cabin to look for these issues as we could.” (Delta, United Airlines, and Alaskan Airlines did not respond to requests for comment about their own protocols.)

The particular environment of planes can also make the experience of surviving sexual assault even more difficult. Mental health counselor Danielle Bostick states that the cramped situation of planes in midair could exacerbate trauma. “Sexual assault is always a traumatic event,” she says, “but when a victim is violated in a confined space, it can be even more distressing and exacerbate the feeling of helplessness, vulnerability, and powerlessness.”

All these circumstances can make people who have experienced sexual assault on a plane reluctant to report it. “A lot of times these crimes go unreported because the victim feels ashamed, they feel intimidated by the person sitting next to them,” Robert Hughes, chief of the FBI’s section overseeing in-flight crime, told Quartz in 2015.

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