When I was a teenager, roadtrips were my escape. As a college student, every penny I saved went to plane tickets. I flew so much one summer that I was on a first name basis with one of the baggage handlers. Flying has become a love-hate relationship for me, as I am sure many can relate. I love to travel, and a plane ride is the quickest option in most cases, though I despise the chaos of airport logistics and cramped, stale environment of a plane’s cabin. I thought I have experienced every in-flight pro and con imaginable until I scrolled across this Slate headline in my Facebook feed: “When Women Are Sexually Assaulted on Long-Haul Flights, Airlines Have No Idea What to Do.” As a young woman who takes pride in her independence to a fault, I immediately felt naive—reckless, even—for never have considered my own vulnerability when on a plane alone and usually sleeping.
Maybe I’ve put too much responsibility in airlines. Maybe I invested a little too much in the mandatory safety-miming show they put on at the beginning of every flight. I guess I just assumed that the barricade of x-rays and metal detectors manned by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration, whose jurisdiction does not actually cover crimes on board) warranted some sense of security after I made it to the other side.
Slate clarifies that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) does regulate flight attendant training and certification, though the only requirement when it comes to passenger interaction is that the attendant must be trained in “Passenger handling, including the procedures to be followed in the case of deranged persons or other persons whose conduct might jeopardize safety” (Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 121.421.ii). The rest is left up to the individual airline company—which by the way, I have yet to find one with any kind of sexual assault policy, passenger code of conduct, or even safety regulations in general posted their website. Apparently, in this wonderful age of technology, airlines still rely on the usual pre-flight safety speech (complete with picture book) to cover all bases.
Not only is the foundation of protocol absent, so are the numbers. There are no federal statistics required for in-flight sexual assaults. Slate was able to get a number of in flight sexual assault cases currently being handled by the FBI, but that’s not counting the reports made by local police and airport security that never made it to the federal level. Add the fact that 2 out of 3 incidents go unreported and the actual number is really anyone’s guess.
I looked into the safety regulations of various methods of transportation to see if they were just as vague. Greyhound buses at least have enough foresight to advise that passengers leave other passengers alone in a “dos and don’ts” section. “Just chill out, be nice and enjoy the ride,” as they so eloquently put it (I’m not even joking). Amtrak has their own Amtrak Police Department you can contact by phone, text, or 911. I suppose telephone access is a benefit to traveling by land, but the cruise lines were the ones to pleasantly surprise me. Carnival Cruises has an easily accessible code of conduct, reserving “the right to to refuse or discontinue passage to anyone who, in Carnival’s judgment, is conducting themselves in a manner that adversely affects the cruise experience of others.” Also, thanks to the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, there is a national database of all crimes committed on board, organized by cruise line and type of crime.
I understand people frequent airlines more than cruise lines thus making the tracking of this data costly and difficult, but that is precisely what makes the data all the more valuable. Slate mentions an unsuccessful attempt to pass a bill in 2015 that would mandate the FAA record and make public the number of sexual assaults on planes. Why it failed to pass is unclear, but it does not seem like an outrageous demand.
There is a lot of awareness that society lacks about sexual assault in general, but it seems that in most cases awareness is our only defense. If it were not for the people who come forward with these stories and articles like Slate’s for giving them a platform, I would have no idea or even a guess that this is an issue. There is enough secrecy and shame around sexual assault that we don’t need major airlines sweeping it under the rug as well. One survivor, Dana LaRue Park, has created a resource, Take Back the Flight, for people who have been affected by in-flight sexual abuse. Her piece of advice is to “make a huge scene, don’t” be afraid.” Once again it boils down to the greatest tool we currently have against sexual assault—our own voices.