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Recent incidents put new focus on sexual assault on airplanes

New York Times

New York Times

A middle-aged priest. A 26-year-old woman. A registered sex offender.

Three seemingly very different people with one thing in common: All three were accused of sexually assaulting fellow passengers on airplanes.

Even before Jessica Leeds alleged that Donald Trump had touched her inappropriately during a flight in 1979, many frequent fliers had concluded that increasingly cramped planes with fewer flight attendants walking the aisles seemed to embolden gropers.

"Sexual harassment and assault is happening on aircraft, and we believe it's happening more often because of the conditions on board," said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union. She cited cramped, confined spaces; alcohol and drugs; fewer flight attendants; and dark cabins on night flights as factors that likely embolden offenders.

Just how frequent sexual assault is during air travel is difficult to determine, but FBI investigations into in-flight sexual assaults have increased 45 percent so far this year. The bureau said that it had opened 58 investigations into sexual assault on aircraft from January through September 2016, compared with 40 for all of 2015. That increase doesn't include incidents reported to local and airport police. It also doesn't account for the 75 percent of sexual assaults that generally go unreported, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of the Justice Department.

Details of the cases vary widely.

Prosecutors said that the priest, the Rev. Marcelo De Jesumaria, had not been seated next to his victim initially during a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 2014, but he switched seats by asking a flight attendant if he could "sit next to his wife."

The woman said she awoke on the flight to feel De Jesumaria's hand on the top of her leg and then on her breast, according to the U.S. attorney's office, Central District of California. When De Jesumaria relaxed his grip, the victim went to the bathroom and used the call button to summon a flight attendant.

De Jesumaria, 47, who previously served in the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home confinement after being convicted of abusive sexual contact.

In another case, Heidi Anne McKinney, 26, was charged with touching another woman on the thigh and groin during an Alaska Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Portland on May 8 this year.

And, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, a woman allegedly assaulted by Yoel Oberlander on an overnight El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Newark on May 29 was seated between him and her mother when he began to grope her. She kept repositioning herself to shake his hand off but it wasn't until her mother awoke that she asked her to switch seats, and she eventually reported to the crew what had taken place.

Oberlander, 35, was charged with one count of abusive sexual contact on an airplane.

• • •

There is no centralized system for collecting sexual assault reports from airlines, and no special training for flight attendants in handling sexual assault.

Unless police are called to meet the flight, it is up to the crew to decide whether to report disruptive behavior to the Federal Aviation Administration. When disturbances are reported, there is no separate category for sexual assault.

"It's one thing to talk about the alertness to security concerns, but this is a crime that has not even been specifically identified" by the airlines, Nelson said.

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said it was not up to the crew to assess whether a crime, or what type of crime, occurred.

"We're reporting misconduct that occurred on the aircraft. It's up to law enforcement to determine if any criminal misconduct occurred," he said. All conflicts on aircraft are handled the same way: by separating those involved, deciding if a diversion of the plane is necessary and calling ahead for law enforcement to meet it.

But the lack of data on airplane sexual assault makes it difficult to study.

"It's hard to assess what's going on if we don't know the extent of what's happening," said Elizabeth L. Jeglic, an associate professor specializing in sex offender policy and treatment at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

With about 712 million passengers on U.S. flights in the last year, the number of passengers who report being sexually assaulted is a tiny percentage of overall air travelers.

A number of factors may have an impact on airplanes.

Alcohol or drugs were identified as a factor in 23 percent of the 10,854 disruptive incidents last year, the International Air Transport Association said. While not all of those involved sexual assault, those who commit sexual violence use alcohol to exploit their victims' vulnerability and to lower their own inhibitions, said Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Palumbo said that there were other factors involved in sexual assaults as well.

Today's smaller seats — some only 16.5 inches wide — put airplane passengers even closer together. (An effort by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to regulate seat size failed in the spring.)

There also are fewer flight attendants on planes to keep an eye on what's happening. Although the FAA specifies minimum crew staffing for each type of aircraft based on evacuation times, airline cutbacks in the travel downturn after Sept. 11 eliminated some flight attendants, according to a study by Diane L. Damos published in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology in 2013.

"If there were more flight attendants who were able to monitor the cabin and trained in what signs to look for, and we were actually able to identify this as a potential threat on board the aircraft, we might be able to better address this problem," Nelson said.

• • •

The flight attendants' union has been working with Congress and victim advocacy groups on legislation that would expand crew training to include dealing with victims of sexual assault on a flight, as well as to create new industry reporting standards.

An earlier effort by Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting member, failed in 2014. Her bill, "The Protecting Airline Passengers From Sexual Assaults Act," would have required the FAA to collect and publish data on sexual assault.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which was involved in helping the Transportation Safety Administration change its passenger screening guidelines, has not been involved with the legislative efforts, but its spokeswoman said that, based on other research, more could be done to address airline sexual assault.

"There is a strong body of research that lets us know when people are given the tools to understand what sexual violence is, how best to intervene in instances of sexual violence, and have training and policies as well as those steps, it can lower rates of sexual violence and can be in the best interest of passenger safety," Palumbo said.

Recent incidents put new focus on sexual assault on airplanes 11/17/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2016 1:25pm]
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