Southwest Airlines has updated its preflight emergency briefing and demonstration by advising passengers to report “any unwelcome behavior” to flight attendants.
The effort comes as major airlines have seen an uptick in onboard harassment incidents in recent years and have struggled with how to combat it.
“This change reflects Southwest’s commitment to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment at all times for each of our customers and employees,” Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish said in an email to The Washington Post. “Southwest’s intention is to remind our customers that flight attendants are a friendly, professional resource for reporting any unwelcome behaviors or conduct during a flight.”
Once flight attendants are alerted of such behavior, which is not strictly limited to sexual conduct, they will respond using their discretion along established procedures, which can mean reseating the passenger who reported it, asking the offender to stop the behavior and — if the conduct requires it — telling the captain, who can request law enforcement assistance when the plane lands, according to the airline.
Southwest says it views passenger safety as an “uncompromising priority” as incidents of sexual assaults on planes, according to the FBI, have risen in recent years across the country.
According to the latest figures from the FBI, 63 cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported in 2017, which marked a 66 percent increase from three years prior in 2014, which saw 38 reported cases. The numbers look small given the millions of U.S. passengers who fly in a given year, mostly because there’s no national clearinghouse for the data, and because it’s “safe to say that many incidents occur that are not reported,” according to a special agent for the bureau.
None of the country’s major airlines have been spared reported incidents of sexual harassment in recent years. Airlines often have trouble assessing how to deal with each case, from disciplining the perpetrators, to protecting the victims, ensuring other passengers’ safety, dealing with the public reaction and interacting with law enforcement.
In an email to The Washington Post, a spokesman for JetBlue said the airline takes “allegations of violent or inappropriate behavior very seriously” and thoroughly investigates all sexual misconduct claims with law enforcement to “create a respectful environment for all our crewmembers and customers where they feel welcome and safe.”
A recent high-profile incident of sexual assault entangled Delta Air Lines when kidnapping survivor and author Elizabeth Smart said that on a flight over the summer, she was awakened by a man who was rubbing her inner thigh as she slept. She recalled the experience throwing her back to the time she spent in captivity, being raped nearly every day for nine months, in an interview with “CBS This Morning.” “I’ve never been worried, I’ve never felt threatened, on an airplane,” she said. “Until now.”
The commonality of sexual assaults reported on United Airlines flights led to the airline being placed on the National Center for Sexual Exploitation’s “Dirty Dozen List,” which annually names 12 corporations or organizations it says profit from or facilitate exploitation. It pointed to United’s “systemic outbreaks of inappropriate aircrew reactions to sexual harassment on their airplanes,” according to the organization’s website. United told The Washington Post the airline updated its policies in 2018 to include enhanced sexual harassment training for flight attendants and continues to ban passengers from viewing content above an R rating on flights.
Spirit Airlines has faced some of the more egregious incidents. In August 2018, a man was convicted of sexual abuse in federal court after unbuttoning a sleeping woman’s shirt and pants, then assaulting her. In January, the airline was accused of mishandling a harassment case by a passenger who said she was groped by a man seated next to her. When she reported it to a flight attendant, she was asked to move to a different seat, a procedure she said lacked compassion. “Somebody just told you a crime was committed. Why would you move the victim?” she said.
In November, an American Airlines flight was diverted from its destination of Salt Lake City after a passenger grabbed a woman’s crotch. In April, an incident aboard a flight to Chicago led to a lawsuit against an off-duty American Airlines employee who copied a passenger’s phone number from her bag tag and proceeded to send her a barrage of messages that constituted “sexual harassment and stalking,” according to a complaint.
American says it has taken steps to prioritize passenger safety in recent months by convening company leaders across the companies’ business units, such as in-flight service and customer experience, to review rules and implement new policies and procedures.
“All team members and customers deserve to feel respected and safe,” spokeswoman Stacy Day wrote in an email to The Post. “American Airlines flight attendants are trained to address a wide range of issues that may arise in-flight, and if faced with an instance of sexual misconduct onboard, we want our team members to feel empowered and encouraged to report and address the situation.”
Many airlines say they update their policies regularly to deal with harassment and issues concerning passenger safety, in which incidents are handled on a case-by-case basis.
“Sexual harassment and assault have absolutely no place in our workplace, on board our flights, or any place,” Alaska Airlines said in a 2018 blog statement. “We recognize the critical role that airline employees play in ensuring an aircraft is safe for everyone on board. We have taken some big steps this year to prevent and respond to sexual harassment on board our aircraft.”
Across the industry, in-flight sexual harassment has become a central issue for airlines that have to take a hard line against misconduct as its pervasiveness is more apparent now than ever.
“At Virgin Atlantic, the welfare and comfort of our customers and crew is paramount, and we take any safety or security incident onboard extremely seriously,” a spokesperson for the airline in a statement to The Post. “We take a zero-tolerance approach to disruptive or inappropriate behavior, working with law enforcement where necessary, to ensure incidents are fully investigated.“
Marwa Eltagouri, Allyson Chiu, Lori Aratani, Reis Thebault, Alex Horton and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.
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