OVER the past year, there have been myriad stories in the press about airlines mistreating passengers. Last April David Dao, a passenger on a domestic United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, was violently dragged off the plane to accommodate crew for another flight. This month United hit the headlines again when a Nigerian passenger accused it of racial discrimination after she was thrown off a flight. But among the sea of shocking headlines about how flight crews abuse passengers, it is easy to forget that the reverse occurs far more frequently.
A new study published earlier this month shows just how common the harassment of flight attendants by flyers is. The Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing American cabin crew, asked more than 3,500 flight attendants from 29 airlines about their experiences. In the past year alone, one-third of flight attendants said that they have experienced verbal sexual harassment by passengers and one-fifth said that they have experienced the physical sort. Across their careers, 68% say they have endured some form of abuse.
More shocking is how frequently some cabin crew suffer from harassment. Of the flight attendants who experienced physical harassment in the past year, 40% said they endured it three or more times. Of those who were verbally abused, 68% experienced three or more such incidents, and one-third experienced it five or more times. The behaviour reported in the survey makes for unpleasant reading. Physical abuse included groping, slapping and touching, both on and under their uniforms, as well as “unwanted hugs, kisses, and humping”. Verbal abuse included “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive, and dirty” comments, in addition to “being subjected to passengers’ explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, request for sexual ‘favours’, and pornographic videos and pictures”. Flight attendants most often responded by avoiding further interaction with the offending passenger. They also frequently ignored the harassment, the survey said.
This epidemic has been allowed to continue because flight attendants so rarely speak up about it. Only 7% of those who experienced abuse said that they reported it to their employers. That may be because airlines are doing so little to address harassment that cabin crew do not think it is worth making a complaint. Some 68% of flight attendants say they have not noticed any effort on the part of airlines to curb sexual harassment, in spite of the growing international attention to the issue sparked by the #MeToo movement. (The Association of Flight Attendants has noted that Alaska, United, and Spirit airlines in America have all taken recent steps to address sexual abuse.)
In part the airlines themselves are responsible for the sexualisation of their crew. Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic has long been known to promote new routes using scantily clad fashion models. Akbar al-Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, attacked his American rivals last year for using “grandmothers” who were not as attractive as his crews.
But even if much of this abuse is being swept under the rug, flight attendants do have a newish ally on their side: the smartphone video. Gulliver recently reported on the seemingly sharp increase in incidents of bad behaviour by flight crews, which is really explained by a proliferation of video clips on social media and video-sharing websites. But that can work the other way, too. America has been captivated in the past week by a racist, anti-immigrant rant by a New York lawyer, who was caught on video yelling at people for speaking Spanish, and the fallout has been dramatic. The man has been ridiculed on social media and even kicked out of his office. The same will surely happen to an increasing degree to passengers who abuse flight attendants. Public shaming is no longer limited to public figures. That may have its drawbacks, but for flight attendants tired of being harassed in silence, it can be welcome.
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