Planes on the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in 2018.
Photo: Kiichiro Sato (AP)

Reports of in-flight sexual assaults committed by passengers against passengers are going up by double-digit margins, according to federal crime statistics, and it’s unclear why.

Investigating alleged sexual assaults on airplanes falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI. Per CNN, the agency is at a loss to explain the increase in mid-flight sexual assaults, saying that the number of reported incidents is “alarming”—and they are cautioning that waiting until the flight is grounded to take action can interfere with an investigation:

FBI investigations into midair sexual assaults increased by 66% from fiscal year 2014 to 2017. The bureau said it had opened 63 investigations into sexual assault on aircraft in 2017, compared with 57 in 2016, 40 in 2015 and 38 in 2014.

FBI Special Agent David Rodski told reporters the number of sexual assaults during flights is increasing “at an alarming rate,” and added, “We’re not sure why.”

... “I’m shocked at the number of passengers who do not take that act and they’ll wait until the plane is on the ground,” Rodski said.

CNN added that while Association of Flight Attendants-CWA survey data from 2016 showed about 20 percent of 2,000 flight attendants polled had “received a report of passenger-on-passenger sexual assault while working a flight,” less than half of the time authorities were notified or met the plane when it arrived at its destination.

Most of the assaults happen on longer flights and involve factors like alcohol, dark cabins, sleeping passengers, or ones who happen to be seated away from the aisle, FBI Baltimore Division assistant special agent Brian Nadeau told the Washington Post. Airline consumer group Flyers Rights president Paul Hudson told the paper that logistical hurdles and a lack of staff training standards may be keeping some victims of in-flight assaults from speaking up:

“If you’re a victim of a crime on the ground, what do you do?” said Hudson, who is an attorney and represented rape victims in New York. “You call 911 and report it to a police officer. But if you’re in an airplane, you can’t do that. You have to report through a flight attendant, and they have to report it to the captain, and the captain has to report it to a ground supervisor for the airline... In many cases, too much time has passed.”

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It’s possible that like with college sexual assault numbers, the higher rate of reported incidents reflects just that: more victims going to authorities in an age of increased awareness. But many of the assaults likely go unreported. According to a CNN investigation last year cataloging several accounts of such incidents on commercial flights noted that “no federal regulatory agency tracks that data nationwide,” with the FBI only having awareness of those incidents it is called in to investigate.

In many cases, it seems like flight crews are unprepared or unwilling to deal with passengers who assault or harass others on board, which can mean the agency is never even aware a crime may have been committed. According to a 2016 report in the New York Times, aside from informing police, the only other option available to flight crews is reporting “disruptive behavior to the Federal Aviation Administration,” which has “no separate category for sexual assault.”

Allison Dvaladze, who told CNN she was groped by a male passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight from Seattle to Amsterdam in April 2016, said that she spoke to flight staff but that they never filed a police report on her behalf. When she followed up with customer service, she said she was given 10,000 frequent flyer miles. Another Delta passenger, Ayanna Hart, told the network when a male passenger grabbed her, a crew member told her the other man was a “Delta Platinum.”

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“If somebody reports a crime to an airline, it should be flagged,” Dvaladze told CNN. “It should not be treated as if it’s lost luggage.”

“These acts are felonies, which can land an offender in prison for 10 years—or, if aggravated—to life,” Nadeau told the Baltimore Sun.

According to CNN, the FBI is trying some initiatives to get airlines to pay attention and develop policies around sexual assault response, including a “Be Air Aware” poster that says “Sexual assault on an aircraft is a federal crime.” But the Times wrote that International Air Transport Association records show disruptive behavior on airlines is “increasing worldwide, jumping 17 percent from 2014 to 2015,” at the same time companies have cut the number of attendants. Legislation was proposed in May to require airlines, rail, and bus operators to report sexual assault or harassment to authorities, though at last update it is still in committee.

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[CNN/Baltimore Sun]