By Isa Knapp
Ruth became a flight attendant so that she could experience the world. Over 30 years ago, when she was 25, she didn’t think she would also experience being sexually harassed by a passenger.
She was working on a 747 that carries over 300 passengers with nine other flight attendants. Soon into the flight to London, the flight attendants started sharing similar stories with each other.
“A passenger just pinched me in the behind.” or “This young man just squeezed pass me in the isle in a very inappropriate way.” the women said to eachother.
They had a hard time tracking him down because the man would constantly change his shirt and move around to different seats on the relatively open flight.
“As I pushed the beverage cart passed him, he pinched me. I turned, took the headset off his head and said, “We know what you have been up to and if you do not stop this behavior I can have the authorities meet you when we land. It is against FAA regulations for you to interfere with the duties of a flight attendant,” said Ruth.
While Ruth stood up to the man, many flight attendants don’t. Their job is to deescalate any situation and they may fear that confronting someone could make an issue worse.
And while her story happened years ago, it is evident that the harassment hasn’t stopped.
According to Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), the duties of flight attendants has become more demanding over the years which can make it difficult to stand up to a harasser.
“Unfortunately, a lot of flight attendants have coped by accepting that some of this behavior is “part of the job,” said Garland. “That is not ok and unacceptable. When you’re thousands of feet in the air, you don’t have the same options when you’re on the ground.”
Laurie, who has been a flight attendant for twenty two years, says that she deals with harassment differently in the air then she does on the ground.
“If I were on the ground and some issue started I walk away from the situation, said Laurie. “I remove myself. Obviously you can’t do that when you’re in an aircraft.”
The survey conducted by AFA found that the number one way that flight attendants deal with harassment is to avoid further interaction with the passenger. Laurie on the other hand feels comfortable in standing up to someone and wishes that more flight attendants felt the same.
“It has to be addressed,” said Laurie. “It has to be deescalated. If the situation gets out of control it means one thing. We’re landing. We’re diverting and we’re landing and that’s the only way to handle it.”
But there are many factors in flight attendants not wanting or even not being able to stand up to someone who is harassing them.
“Flight attendants have more duties than ever before with staffing at FAA minimums. Sometimes they don’t feel as if they have the time to confront this behavior. And if you’re on a regional jet, sometimes there is only 1 flight attendant on board.”
On top of that, the long history of flight attendants being sexualized in their jobs exacerbates the issue.
Flight attendants have long been glamorized and sexualized due to campaigns from the 60s and 70s like “I’m Cheryl, Fly Me”, and images portrayed of them.
“Airlines marketed flight attendants as sex objects to sell tickets. It most certainly had an effect on the mindset that passengers brought to the planes – that Flight Attendants were included in the purchase of a ticket.”
This idea comes not only ads like “I’m Cheryl, Fly Me,” but also from slogans like “Coffee, Tea or Me,” which exacerbated the sexualization of the women serving the cabin.
The AFA has publicly denounced the previous objectification of its employees from ads like this and hope that more airlines will stand up to the issue and work to fight against it.
“We’re encouraged by the work these 3 airlines have already undertaken and would like to see the rest of the industry follow,” said Garland.
Garland also said that those three airlines are working to better train frontline employees on how to handle sexual harassment incidents.
The issue was identified by the AFA who then decided to inquire about the severity of the issue.
In 2017, the AFA conducted a survey of almost 2,000 flight attendants on their experience with sexual harassment with passengers at work.
· 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
The survey summarized that “More than one-in-three flight attendants say they have experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers, and nearly one-in-five have experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers, in the last year alone. Despite the prevalence of abuse and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, 68 percent of flight attendants say they saw no efforts by airlines to address workplace sexual harassment over the last year.”
Congress has directed the Department of Transportation to set up a task force to help combat sexual harassment of flight attendants. According to Garland, the AFA hopes that the policies and practices will be put in place so that flight attendants have the tools to deal with harassment onboard the plane.
“His behavior stopped yet our feelings did not. To some this may be considered a minor offense however the emotions within the crew ranged from feeling offended, objectified, harassed, or humiliated,” said Ruth.