Photo by Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia

Photo by Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia

Reports of Assault in the Air Could Be Taking Off

As Randi Zuckerberg accuses Alaska Airlines of inaction, one Seattleite collects accounts of a problem she expects to become more prevalent.

New York businesswoman Randi Zuckerberg, a former Facebook executive and sister to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is happier today with the response she received from Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. After initial inaction, the carrier has now agreed to investigate her complaint that a male passenger on a flight to Mexico harassed her with crude sexual comments.

A week ago, after reporting the incident to attendants on an Alaska flight from Los Angeles to Mazatland, Zuckerberg said, no one seemed too concerned and the crew suggested that she just move to another seat. In a letter she sent the airlines and posted on social media, she wrote:

“I am furious at that passenger for making me extremely uncomfortable for a 3 hour flight. I am pretty furious at myself for not causing more of a scene…But I am even more furious with Alaska Airlines for knowingly and willingly providing this man with a platform to harass women.”

Zuckerberg’s social media posts about the verbal assault went viral, aided by emergence of the #MeToo #SilenceBreakers movement as more women from Hollywood to D.C. step forth to name their high-profile bosses, co-workers, and political representatives as sexual harassers and assaulters.

Complaints over in-flight groping have increased in recent years and include a woman’s claim during the 2016 presidential election campaign that Donald Trump touched her sexually during a 1979 flight (which he denied). More complaints were generated in part by increasingly crowded cabins, tighter seating, and flight attendants with no special training to handle conflicts.

No government agency or airline collects and counts all the airborne assault or harassment complaints, industry experts say. Reports are frequently made to the airlines, FBI and local police agencies but there is no centralized accounting to determine the type and frequency of incidents nationwide.

Allison Dvaladze, a Seattle woman who says she was sexually assaulted on a flight last year, thinks there are enough stories of verbal and physical sex assault at 30,000 feet that she has begun collecting them on her web page.

“This is not an Alaska Airlines problem,” she says, “it is an industry and society problem,” and the airlines are not doing enough to solve it.

That was Zuckerberg’s reaction, too, when she typed out a tweet last week.

In her letter to the Seattle-based airlines, she recalled the cabin crew telling her the passenger was a frequent verbal offender and took the Mexico flight regularly. Yet after Zuckerberg complained, she said, attendants issued just a light scolding: With a giggle, several asked the offender if he was “behaving today,” Zuckerberg said.

She told attendants the man had talked about touching himself and asked if she fantasized about the female passenger she was traveling with. He also offered his opinion on the looks and figures of female passengers as they boarded.

“Ironically,” Zuckerberg wrote in her letter to Alaska, “one of [his] comments was about all those recent sexual harassment cases in the media and how ‘These Millennial women just aren’t willing to give some booty to get a job anymore.’”

Public reaction to the letter and tweet persuaded two airline officials to reach out to her and announce they were investigating the incident. “As a company, we have zero tolerance for any type of sexual misconduct that creates an unsafe environment for our guests and crew members,” the airline said in a response.

The incident, said Zuckerberg, never should have happened in the first place, but “I am thankful that they are taking the situation seriously.”

One of her Twitter followers—a woman who identified herself as a flight attendant—said attendants need more support from airline management. “The problem is when nobody backs us up, which is often the case,” she wrote. “There are situations where we offer to have police meet the flight and the victim says to forget it. Or we report it to management, and we never know what happens.”

Another tweeter asked Zuckerberg, an author, radio host and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, to “Imagine all of the women flying who don’t have the same platform to be heard” that she does.

Indeed, some arguably more serious incidents appear to have gotten less media notice. A quick online search turned up a string of such stories including that of an Oregon woman who pleaded guilty to groping another female passenger and making “a series of profane and lewd statements to the victim.” Other reports told of a Michigan man arrested for masturbating during a flight, an Oregon man who groped a teen girl passenger, and a New York doctor who molested a sleeping teen girl.

Zuckerberg said she’s aware that complaints from more widely-known victims will get more attention.

“Yes that is why, even though I was embarrassed and humiliated beyond words to post this, I felt it was necessary to highlight,” she responded. Within a few days, she had received more than 8,000 Facebook and Twitter responses.

Dvaladze, the Seattle victim who is collecting in-flight assault stories on a Facebook page, says it’s important for airlines to be prepared now that reports seem to be increasing. Moving a victim to another seat may solve little, for example, as the story about the girl molested by the New York doctor underscores.

“I just felt like he could [still] see me,” the victim told CBS News afterward, recalling how she was sent to another seat. “Like he could see wherever I was sitting. There was just still so much time…I couldn’t just leave the plane. I didn’t have anyone. I didn’t feel like there was anyone on the plane that could protect me.”

Dvaladze was assaulted during a flight to Amsterdam last year, she said, leading her to create the Facebook page, called “Protect airline passengers from sexual assault.” She is also working with D.C. legislators to introduce the federal “Stopping Assault While Flying” enforcement act of 2017. If passed, it would require improved training and statistical tracking of airline assaults.

The FBI doesn’t include a complete tally of airline assaults in the agency’s national crime statistics, Dvaladze says, and airlines don’t like to reveal similar stats they might keep. Of the few stats available, the Justice Department says it logged 40 airline sex assault cases in 2015 and more than 60 last year, with figures expected to rise further this year.

“Add this to the fact that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of sexual assaults go unreported,” Dvaldze writes on her Facebook page, “and it begins to seem like the issue is much larger than many had previously realized.”

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