Harassment and worse in the air

Airline staff often have to endure demeaning treatment at the workplace. The law needs to be tightened to protect them

November 29, 2016 12:46 am | Updated 12:46 am IST

Last month, a male passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Burbank called out “ooh sexy” while the flight attendant demonstrated the use of the life vest. When she told him to be “respectful”, he responded: “I’m just fooling around.” The aircraft was diverted to offload him.

This was not the first time that airline had taken such action following harassment by a passenger. A few months ago, it diverted a flight from Portland to Anchorage when an intoxicated male passenger groped and forcibly tried to kiss a 16-year-old girl on board. A few other airlines have taken similar action.

These kinds of violations on passenger aircraft are generally under-reported, but in the United States the reports are periodically published. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had 58 investigations into sexual assault on airplanes this year so far, compared with 40 for all of 2015.

In India, where I live, however, there is no information on the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s site on the number of such cases that have been reported and/or are under investigation. No doubt such incidents are happening. The victims being in a confined and cramped space often makes it easier for assaults to occur and harder for victims to seek safety. This is also true for airline staff harassed by their colleagues.

Up until three years ago, I worked for 20 years in the aviation field in India. I began as a flight attendant and witnessed several incidents of harassment. The worst behaviour often came from the captain, the Supreme Commander of the aircraft. Disobeying him (they were almost all ‘him’) could upset him, which could indirectly affect the safety of the aircraft and the people on board. During training, we were warned which captains to avoid or accommodate in order not to cause trouble. The flight attendants and even the first officers often put up with them.

I remember one incident where a trainee flight attendant flew with two senior pilots who were known bullies. They locked her in the cockpit with them, for “fun”. The Boeing 737 cockpit has very little room and it can become very claustrophobic, especially if it includes two men who are bent on demeaning you and making you feel insignificant. After the flight, the young flight attendant went back to the office and resigned from her job; no action was taken against the two pilots.

As flight attendants we were trained to deal with intoxicated or disgruntled passengers and emergencies that included a fire accident, an evacuation, a hijack and a medical emergency. But not once were we briefed about sexual harassment, what it entailed, or our rights or the rights of our passengers.

There have been improvements since I started, and recently several airlines have taken positive action regarding colleague-to-colleague abuse. Earlier this year, SpiceJet removed a captain for sexually assaulting a flight attendant. A Perth-based cabin crew supervisor was sacked after he showed his colleagues objectionable pictures of a crew member he was dating. He was also accused of making sexual advances on several colleagues, and on multiple occasions he had made inappropriate comments to crew colleagues.

In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace... Act was passed in India, forcing airlines to implement a sexual harassment policy and constitute internal complaints committees to investigate reported incidents. But after speaking recently with several former colleagues, I learned that the situation has not changed much. Colleagues continue to harass colleagues and rarely do people make an official report. When passengers sexually harass crew members, it takes courage to make the report as the process to deal with the police is tedious and there is an unwritten threat of the airline not being supportive enough.

While we have a law in India, it needs to be enforced better. Across all airlines globally, we need uniformity in a sexual harassment policy for staff and passengers and better publicised reporting mechanisms. We need better training of flight attendants and other team members to handle sexual harassment cases and we need managers and supervisors who are supportive and treat perpetrators with strict and swift action. Further, while we see a growing number of campaigns to address acts of sexual harassment on trains, buses and subways, we need to see the same happen on airlines, which are also a form of transport.

Ultimately, addressing sexual harassment is a matter of equality, and not just workplace equality for women in the industry. If we want women to have equal access to jobs and leisure and other opportunities, the skies must be safe for them.

(The author, who worked in the airline industry, is co-founder of Safecity. She is a 2015 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.)

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