Number of Sexual Assaults Reported on Airplanes on the Rise FBI Says

The skies aren't so friendly after all according to a new report from the FBI. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the number of reported sexual assaults on board domestic flights in the U.S. has grown by nearly two-thirds in recent years. 

The reported incidents generally happen during long-haul flights during times when the cabin is dark, and victims are typically asleep, often covered with a jacket or blanket of some kind. Victims say they wake to find their seatmate's hands inside their clothing or underwear. 

Last year, sixty-three cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to federal authorities, a sharp increase from the 38 cases reported to the FBI during the 2014 fiscal year. 

One victim, a mother of two who was attacked in 2016 while on a flight from the West Coast to Africa via Europe described her experience, saying she is a veteran flyer, and didn't expect anything like this to happen to her. 

“I fly overseas often,” she said. “The flights usually leave around 6 p.m. I have dinner, watch a movie, and go to sleep. I was dozing off toward the end of the movie, and all of a sudden I felt a hand in my crotch.”

When her seatmate began assaulting her, she recalls that, “it didn’t make sense to me. It was all so disorienting and confusing.” 

She instinctively said "NO!" and shoved the man's hands away, even as her attacker tried using his body weight to detain her. After managing to get free, she ran to the bathroom where other passengers assumed she was having some kind of medical emergency. When she recounted what happened and was reseated away from the person who assaulted her, she says members of the crew told her that sexual assaults in the air were fairly common. 

“I was horrified,” the mother of two remembered thinking. “How can this be and I have never heard about it?”

Most in-flight sexual assault cases go unreported and involve unwanted touching - a felony that can result in prison time. 

“Unfortunately, people don’t think things like this happen on airplanes,” said Caryn Highley, a special agent in the FBI’s Seattle Division who investigates crimes aboard aircraft.

“There is a perception on an airplane that you’re in a bubble of safety,” Highley said. 

But officials warn that people taking flights - especially overnight flights where people may be drinking or taking sleeping pills, the dark cabin and close-quarter seating can tempt offenders with the easy opportunity. 

The FBI says flyers can take precautions before boarding their flight to prevent unwanted touching. 

Trust your gut. The FBI says offenders often try to test their victims, pretending to brush up against them to see how their victims will react or wake up. “Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt,” Gates said. If such behavior occurs, reprimand the person immediately, and consider asking to be moved to another seat."

Officials also warn flyers against mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or other medication during an overnight flight that can make you woozy or unable to react to a dangerous situation. 

If an incident does occur, the FBI says victims should immediately report it to the flight crew and ask they record the offender's identity and report the incident. 

“Flight attendants and captains represent authority on the plane,” Gates said. “We don’t want them to be police officers, but they can alert law enforcement, and they can sometimes deal with the problem in the air.”

The victim of the 2016 attack says the best thing anyone can do, is report the assault immediately. 

“A lot of women don’t come forward because they are embarrassed,” she said. “It is embarrassing in the moment. It’s awkward when the flight crew starts asking you all these questions and passengers are staring at you. The burden has been placed on you instead of the person who just inflicted this on you,” she explained. “Recognize and understand that. People should not be able to get away with these crimes.”


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