Sexual harassment at 40,000 feet

Recently, talking about sexual harassment has become as commonplace as sexual harassment itself. Which is grand and not before time. We’re starting to see that some industries are great at dealing with this, and others are not. One area which needs to improve its treatment of women is the airline industry. Think about it for a moment, for an entitled person, an enclosed space, proximity to strangers and a ready excuse of ‘too much alcohol’ is the ideal space to take advantage and victimise someone. With greater numbers of women travelling solo (a brilliant thing), airlines need to be ready to make female customers feel safer. Here’s what happened to me:-

A few years ago, I flew from London to Malaysia and had the misfortune of experiencing on-board sexual harassment while I was travelling on business. Sitting alone , a man I didn’t know sat behind me, stroked my hair, ran his hands down my neck as I slept, stroked my arms and made my flight generally miserable. I felt paralysed with fear as this man did not stop making me and another woman sat near him, feel uncomfortable. The airline and the crew were ill-equipped to help me, and I think there are lessons they need to learn to treat women better.

I complained to the crew- who at first did not believe that this man and I were not connected or related- we were both British so to them it meant we must know each other. I only convinced them when I shouted to the man “I don’t know you, get your hands off me”. I was sat opposite the crew on their breaks. Initially, they served him a beer and told him to ‘stop it’. No one asked me if I was OK, none of the crew moved him or me away from each other. I remember sitting in my seat feeling lonely and afraid, wishing that there was a man nearby like my brother or my partner who I could ask to switch seats with me, the type of Good Man who if I told him this was happening would step in and help. Even more helpful if he looked like he played rugby, idiots like my assaulter would be scared of. Sadly for me, there were only other women, or other people who were vulnerable nearby.

As I sat feeling scared, he reached out again through the gaps in the seats and stroked my hair, whispered and touched me again. I decided that I could not continue feeling unsafe, I had as much right as any other passenger to be comfortable. It’s weird how when something like this happens, you feel uncomfortable making a fuss- now with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done the whole FUCK POLITENESS. This time, I smacked his hand away, grabbed my belongings and spoke to the cabin crew manager- who did very little to help me. Luckily around the same time, the second victim (yes, turns out there was a 2nd woman he sexually harassed) came up too. We both refused to return to our seats. I believe it’s the only way we were moved to elsewhere on the plane (to worse seats). The whole time, the crew acted like we, the victims, were causing them huge trouble.

Once we landed, no one mentioned it to me any further or checked I was OK. I realised that in incidents like this, women don’t matter. This was a huge mistake- if you are harassed on a plane, the laws of the country you arrive in, govern what happens on board. Further investigation back in the UK, Sussex Police gave me the perfect advice, they believed my complaint, and called me with their conclusions. Instead, I had to avoid the man at the baggage collection and immigration by myself. I am so pleased that had arranged transport so I could avoid him.

All my complaints to the airline went unanswered, so I emailed their airline group, they investigated and; I never heard from them again. The whole situation just shows how little training goes in to making sure women, specifically, are kept safe by crew from other passengers. Female cabin crew experience harassment and dismiss it as part of the job. If airlines took a zero tolerance towards how staff were treated, it would send a great message to all passengers that they might be customers, they do not have licence to touch women.

Here’s my advice if this happens to you:-

  • Film it, take a photo. Save as much evidence as possible and post it on your social media.
  • Take a note of their seat
  • If possible, Get up from your seat, walk to another part of the cabin and tell them exactly what happened.
  • Say, “I have a problem. The person in (seat number) keeps (explain what they are doing that you don’t like). Can you please help me? I feel really uncomfortable and I don’t want to be near them.”
  • Ask them to record the incident, get a record of their name
  • Get them to move the person away from you- (even better if they make a big show of it- REVENGE!)
  • Before you land, tell the crew you are going to report it to the police. Ask for the passenger manifest and get a note of their name. If possible, get the local police to meet you at the gate. This way, the statement you give will be fresh, the person who did it will be there- if they are subsequently arrested, you won’t have to be near them.
  • Report it to the airline- on Twitter, on Facebook, on a complaints email. Need inspiration? This girl did it https://www.buzzfeed.com/imaansheikh/indigo-flight-sexual-harassment?utm_term=.mwxMa3yVO#.xjYaL4Dez

Considering that ‘unruly’ behaviour can warrant a fine of up to $25,000,women should not back down. We need to keep pushing for full disclosure, airlines need to take women seriously- it’s not female cabin crew getting harassed by sleazy businessmen indulging a Mad Men-esque fantasy. It’s any woman. Aviation authorities and airlines do not disclose how frequently this happens, they don’t make any effort to tell women they will be believed. It would be great if the inflight emergency card could have an explanation of what to do if you find yourself sexually harassed. How difficult would that be?

Aviation Authorities and airlines treat sexual harassment like a dirty little secret, they don’t keep records, they don’t have policies and thousands of women like me find themselves have to live with yet another story of the ‘time a gross dude was allowed to be the worst’. It’s a free-for-all and women are being told to be quiet and not make a fuss. I hope they will change their approach soon.