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Tina Casey headshot

Airlines Respond to Sexual Harassment, With Murky Results

By Tina Casey
Sexual Harassment

In 2018, Congress responded to widespread reports of in-flight sexual harassment by assigning a task force to address the issue. The work of the so-named “National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force” has yet to be implemented, though some airlines are already taking steps themselves. However, if the effort continues to focus on guidance for victims, it fails to address the root cause.

Sexual harassment and the airline industry

Airlines face an especially complex task in terms of addressing in-flight sexual harassment.

Internally, employee relations are still tinged with the legacy of sex-segregated roles and promotional strategies focusing on the appeal of female flight attendants. That legacy is reflected a stream of verbal and physical sexual harassment directed at flight attendants by passengers.

Over and above these issues, airlines are also trying to cope with passengers assaulting other passengers.

The passenger-on-passenger problem is a direct bottom line issue as well as an ethical one. As reported by USA Today last week, passengers are taking legal action against airlines that fail to respond appropriately when they report abuse.

Sexual harassment and the information gap

Regardless of legacy issues, airlines can avail themselves of a wealth of experience and data-driven best practices that address sexual harassment issues between employees.

When airline passengers and in-flight employees enter the mix, however, a widespread lack of tools and training specific to sexual harassment has persisted.

That information gap was highlighted in a national survey of flight attendants in 2017.

Of the flight attendants participating in the survey, 35 percent reported verbal sexual harassment from passengers within the past year. For another 18 percent, the abuse was physical.

Despite the widespread nature of the problem, only 7 percent of those experiencing harassment reported the passenger to their employer.

The others took various measures to avoid, diffuse, or deflect the situation. Overall, measures like these indicate that they lack the tools, training, and institutional support to deal appropriately with the situation.

A similar information gap surfaced when flight attendants were surveyed about passenger-on-passenger abuse.

In a 2017 survey, 20% of flight attendants reported having to intervene in a passenger-on-passenger assault. However, their airline contacted law enforcement in less than half of those incidents, and most respondents indicated that they were unaware of any guidance or training issued by their employer.

Progress on sexual harassment training

To their credit, several airlines have taken steps to update their training and guidance for passenger-on-passenger assault, a move encouraged by the Association of Flight Attendants.

In 2018 Alaska Airlines also added a line to its preflight script, encouraging passengers to report “unwelcome behavior” to flight attendants.

Though gently worded, that does convey the message that the airline has policies in place, and that flight attendants are trained to follow them.

The idea has not gained much traction, though last month Southwest Airlines updated its script to include a similar advisory.

Among other reasons, individual airlines may be hesitant to provide pre-flight guidance on reporting bad behavior, because it preemptively raises the perception that the airline is less safe than others.

Task force addresses sexual harassment in flight

It is also possible that other airlines are waiting for the Task Force to provide uniform guidance on messaging, before they update their scripts.

Some advocates doubt that the Task Force will be effective, including at least one victim of in-flight assault. However, the Task Force did hold a series of meetings and listening sessions last year. The effort focused on  employee training and guidance as well as passenger awareness. Data collection and sexual harassment definition were also part of the discussion.

That is a good start, but it does not address the central issue, which is that flight attendants are on the front lines of a culture that excuses bad behavior.

Until more forceful steps are taken to remind passengers that sexual harassment is in fact a crime, the training-and-guidance approach continues to place the burden on both victims of such behavior and on flight attendants.

Alaska Airlines provided a written version of crime-based messaging in 2019. Its in-flight magazine included a warning to all passengers, admonishing them to “behave in a safe and respectful manner at all times.”

“We respect the privacy and well-being of our guests and employees,” the warning continued. “We do not tolerate inappropriate verbal, digital or physical conduct of any kind, including sexual harassment, invasive photography and assault.”

In addition to advising passengers to report “unwelcome behavior” to an employee, the warning specifically advised passengers that “any crime committed in flight is a federal offense.”

Advocating for federal action

If the Task Force does recommend industry-wide changes that focus more attention on deterring potential perpetrators, that would be a significant step forward with a ripple effect beyond the airline industry.

The #MeToo movement notwithstanding, American culture is still deeply rooted in attitudes that excuse bad behavior and punish victims for speaking up.

By unifying around federal guidelines that deter bad behavior, the airline industry could help shift the cultural landscape toward a new normal.

As an analogous situation, consider the national conversation over gun safety. Corporate leaders in the retail area have begun to realize that lax gun laws foster critical safety issues for their brick-and-mortar business. However, most have been reluctant to exercise their right to outright forbid firearms on their premises.

Some gently “request” that gun owners voluntarily leave their weapons behind, but that is the main extent of it.

More recently, Kroger, Starbucks and other retailers have come to understand that the gentle approach is not working. Inspired partly by the youth gun safety movement in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, they are beginning to partner with grassroots organizations to advocate for state and federal laws that help ensure a safe environment for their customers.

That deterrence-oriented approach marks a clear contrast with the present practice of relying on store clerks, private security guards and bystanders to respond after the fact.

Avoiding a messaging risk

By being more up-front and specific about sexual harassment deterrence, airlines may also avoid the risk involved in messaging that vaguely encourages passengers to report “unwelcome behavior.”

The list of unwelcome in-flight behavior appears to be growing well past sexual harassment, with anything from body odor to religious discrimination in the mix.

The discrimination risk is particularly troubling, given the anti-immigrant environment stirred up in recent years.

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has added yet another new wrinkle that could result in misreporting based on a person’s appearance, language, or dress and accessories.

All in all, federal guidelines that call for a more forceful, specific, and deterrence-oriented approach to in-flight sexual harassment could help shield airlines from all sorts of bad behavior, including discriminatory misreporting.

Image credit: Owen Lystrup/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey