Flight attendants subject to sexual assaults in the skies

Keeping everyone on board safe is one of the top priorities for flight attendants.

It’s a far cry from the early days of the industry, when many believed their main role was passing out peanuts and smiles.

The stereotype has taken decades to break, thanks in large part to the airlines themselves, companies that once marketed sex appeal to sell tickets.

“When we first started in this career, we were called stewardesses, not flight attendants. We were there mostly for the pleasure of the passengers and sex appeal was marketed,” said Sara Nelson, international president, Association of Flight Attendants.

But times have changed. Today, flight attendants need to be lifesavers, even enforcement officers.

“We respond to health emergencies and all kind of other emergencies on board the plane, but we also serve as aviation’s last line of defense,” Nelson said.

They’re called upon not only in the event of an emergency, but when the problems arise with passengers.

One high-profile case involved a Turkish national who forced a plane to make a emergency landing in Honolulu. In that case, flight attendants, with the help of passengers, were forced to subdue the man.

“Flight attendants more than ever are spending a lot of their time de-escalating conflict on board,” Nelson said. “Planes are fuller than ever and we have shorter staffing than ever before. So flight attendants are handling many more passengers, and any time you get humans packed in a confined space, you’re going to have conflict.”

Nelson also says that due to our geographical location, Hawaii is also at a higher risk when it comes to a number of incidents that could happen at 35,000 feet.

“The addition of alcohol to a vacation destination especially is the primary cause for a lot of the disruption,” Nelson said.

But problems go beyond just simply disruptive behavior. The union recently conducted a poll of flight attendants nationally, and what they learned was startling.

“The survey results show that one of five flight attendants who responded said they had encountered sexual assault on the plane,” Nelson said. “No one was willing to talk about what actually happened in the cabin, or how flight attendants have been objectified until this moment right now.”

Part of what makes this issue more challenging is the industry’s own history of selling itself.

“They ran ads with things like, ‘I’m Cheryl, fly me,’ and hot pants and go-go boots, and it’s all about selling tickets over sex,” Nelson said.

Nelson is lobbying Congress and working to get airlines to enact a zero-tolerance policy industry-wide.

“United Airlines responded immediately and did just that, so if you’re flying in and out of the islands, United Airlines is one that has said there is no tolerance at this airline,” Nelson said. “Another airline that has stepped up and is working with us by changing policy and putting the training in places is Alaska Airlines. But the rest of the industry has yet to respond.”

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On Board Sexual Assault Survey

In response to Congressional request to understand Flight Attendants’ perspectives and experiences with on-board passenger on passenger sexual assault, EAP (Employee Assistance Program) created and reported the findings of a seven (7) question Flight Attendant survey. A total of 1,929 responses were recorded during the one month time frame that the survey was available. Summary findings included:

  • One out of five responding flight attendants has experienced a report of passenger on passenger sexual assault while working a flight.
  • The most common action taken by an intervening Flight Attendant was to physically separate the passengers and notify all flying partners.
  • Law enforcement was contacted or met the plane less than half of the time.
  • Most intervening actions taken must have been due to the resourcefulness of the intervening involved Flight Attendants as the overwhelming majority of responders report no knowledge of written guidance and/or training on this specific issue available through their airline.

— Association of Flight Attendants, International President Report

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