Women detail sexual assaults and harassment on commercial flights

Katie Campos settled into her seat for a short flight from Newark to Buffalo last week. Within minutes, she said, an ...

Posted: Dec 28, 2017 1:28 PM
Updated: Dec 28, 2017 1:28 PM

Katie Campos settled into her seat for a short flight from Newark to Buffalo last week. Within minutes, she said, an intoxicated male passenger sitting next to her began groping and harassing both Campos and a second female passenger seated in the same row, grabbing Campos repeatedly despite her demands for him to stop it.

"He grabbed my upper thigh, like in the crotch area, and he grabbed it pretty forcefully," Campos told CNN, adding that the man only stopped touching her after she got out of her seat and ran to the back of the plane, where she told a flight attendant what was happening.

Four women told CNN they've been sexually assaulted or harassed during a commercial flight

It's difficult to determine just how frequently assaults happen on commercial flights

Campos is one of four women CNN interviewed who said they've been sexually assaulted or harassed during a commercial flight. These women are a small fraction of a typically overlooked group enduring inappropriate behavior during an American reckoning with harassment and misconduct that spans across many industries like entertainment, sports, news media and politics.

A police report filed said that the male passenger told the other female passenger seated in Campos' row that he would like to kiss her. When the woman declined, he began stroking her leg. The passenger reported the man's behavior to a flight attendant.

When Campos reported what the man had done to members of the United Airlines crew, she said she didn't feel like she was taken seriously until she said she refused to retake her seat next to him.

"I felt like no one, no one that was supposed to be in charge could handle the situation," she told CNN. "I kept on feeling, and I continue now as I'm like filing these reports, to feel like I'm the one who is doing something wrong, and I'm not being protected."

Ultimately, Campos was reseated -- but directly behind the man who was harassing her. United Airlines told CNN that's because there were few empty seats on the plane. The man, Campos said, didn't stop touching her even after she moved.

"This man continued," she said. "This man should have been restrained so he couldn't continue to do this. And just continuing to touch and stare just made me feel completely helpless and horrible. It was terrifying."

A United Airlines spokesperson told CNN that the airline has "zero tolerance for this type of behavior."

"Our pilot requested that local law enforcement meet the aircraft on arrival," the spokesperson said.

Members of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Police Department met the plane at the gate and escorted the man off the plane, according to the police report. Cell phone video obtained by CNN shows police boarding the flight and removing the man. He has been charged with disorderly conduct.

Campos said the flight crew didn't appear prepared to handle the situation and wondered what could have happened if the relatively short flight had gone on for longer.

"At the end of the day, they didn't protect my safety or those around me," Campos said.

A hidden reality of commercial air travel

It's difficult to determine just how frequently assaults happen on commercial flights because no federal regulatory agency tracks that data nationwide. But FBI investigations into midair sexual assaults have increased by 66% from fiscal year 2014 to 2017. The bureau said it opened 63 investigations into sexual assault on aircraft during the current fiscal year, compared with 57 in 2016, 40 in 2015 and 38 in 2014.

The FBI said it isn't clear what is behind the increase.

Even so, those are just the cases that the FBI investigates, and those figures don't account for incidents reported that the FBI never hears about, or those that are never reported at all like so many cases of sexual harassment overall.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, one of the world's largest flight attendant unions, last year surveyed nearly 2,000 flight attendants about their experiences with midair sexual assaults. Among those who responded, one out of five said they received a report of passenger on passenger sexual assault while working a flight. But, according to the survey, law enforcement was contacted or met the plane less than half of the time. Three of the four women interviewed by CNN about their assault or harassment said there were no apparent attempts to contact law enforcement.

Typically, the AFA said, intervention comes from flight attendants, but many say their employers haven't told them what to do if someone says they've been harassed or assaulted in flight.

Sara Nelson, a United Airlines flight attendant who is president of the union, told CNN, "In my 22 years as a flight attendant, I have never taken part in a conversation -- in training or otherwise -- about how to handle sexual harassment or sexual assault."

While policies exist, Nelson says that if they're not elevated in airlines' training, flight attendants are at a loss of what to do when confronting inappropriate -- and sometimes criminal -- behavior.

"They don't necessarily know exactly what to do and how to respond when they discover it," she said.

Allison Dvaladze said she didn't believe the Delta Airlines crew knew how to best help her when a man allegedly groped her during a flight. Dvaladze said that as she was dozing off during an April 2016 flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, she felt a hand grabbing her."

I felt a hand in my crotch, and realized that the man next to me was holding, was grabbing my crotch," Dvaladze told CNN. "I slapped his hand right away, yelled 'no,' without even thinking."

The man reached for her again, Dvaladze said, and she again hit him away. After the man reached toward her again, despite her attempts to stop him, she said she unbuckled her seat belt, and ran to the back of the plane where she asked to speak with members of the flight crew.

"I believe they were doing everything they could, in their mind, to comfort me, but it was clear there was not a clear procedure for what they should do," she said. "They asked me what I wanted them to do, and at that moment I really just couldn't think about anything except for wanting to get off the plane."

That wasn't an option in midair. Ultimately, Dvaladze was given a new seat away from the male passenger who had groped her. Dvaladze said she assumed that the crew would file a report based on her experience and she followed up with the airline's customer service department herself about a week after her flight, according to emails reviewed by CNN.

The airline's customer service department responded to her email about a month later, emails show. A representative apologized for her flight experience, saying "I know it's not fair when one person's behavior affects another person."

As a "goodwill gesture," the airline also offered Dvaladze 10,000 frequent flyer miles.

"If somebody reports a crime to an airline, it should be flagged. It should not be treated as if it's lost luggage," Dvaladze told CNN.

A spokesperson for Delta Airlines told CNN that the airline continues to be "disheartened by the events Ms. Dvaladze described."

The spokesperson said that Delta crew members are "trained to have situational awareness in the cabin at all times and are prepared to handle a range of situations and always prioritize customer safety."

"The lights came on"

CNN reached out to each of the major US airlines, as well as Airlines for America, the industry trade group that represents them. Each responded with a statement with a similar theme: The safety and security of passengers is the priority. Each airline also said that flight attendants are trained to handle incidents like these, but none of the airlines detailed their policies or guidelines.

Alison McAfee, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, said that member airlines "take these matters seriously and do not tolerate harassment in any form."

"Employees receive extensive customer service training to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our passengers and crew," McAfee said in a statement. "Airlines strive to make sure every passenger has a safe and pleasant travel experience and that disruptive or inappropriate behavior is dealt with as promptly as possible."

McAfee also said that carriers have "well-defined processes and procedures in place" for reporting criminal activity to the Federal Aviation Administration and the appropriate law enforcement authorities.

Each of the women CNN spoke to who said they were sexually harassed or assaulted during a commercial flight said the flight crews did little or nothing to help. Ayanna Hart was a passenger on a Delta Airlines flight. She said an intoxicated man repeatedly grabbed her during a flight earlier this year and said a flight crew member was dismissive of her concerns.

The last time the male passenger grabbed her, Hart said the flight attendant told the man, "oh, no touching." When another passenger called the flight attendant over to express concerns about the man, the flight attendant was of little help.

"The flight attendant said, 'Oh, don't worry about him. He flies with us all the time. He's Delta Platinum,'" Hart said, a reference to the top tier of Delta's frequent flyer program.

Now, Hart is suing Delta for failing to intervene and continuing to serve the man alcohol.

The airline wouldn't comment on the case, citing pending litigation, but said it takes these incidents "seriously" and "with law enforcement, investigates them."

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has called on airlines to do more not just to train crew members on how to handle sexual assault and harassment that has happened to passengers in the air, but also to do more to protect the crew members themselves.

"Not only are we not equipped with good, clear policies about how to do that and training about how to do that, you're asking people who are experiencing sexual harassment every single day to now be the enforcers and it just doesn't make a lot of sense," said Nelson, the head of the AFA.

The situation is equally senseless for passengers who have experienced harassment and who say they are left with little comfort.

Campos, the United Airlines passenger who said she endured repeated groping and unwanted touching at the hands of a man seated next to her, said she felt that even the people who were supposed to ensure her safety on board the late-night flight were unable to do so.

"It felt very much like the only reason this came to an end at all is that the flight landed. And we were at a gate, and the lights came on," she told CNN.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 590211

Reported Deaths: 9310
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion815581297
Lake44306666
Allen31919541
Hamilton28371304
St. Joseph26766371
Elkhart24098341
Vanderburgh18643213
Tippecanoe17422121
Johnson14496284
Porter14399160
Hendricks13870241
Madison10561212
Vigo10483171
Clark10240130
Monroe9076108
Delaware8836132
LaPorte8771155
Howard7897138
Kosciusko787277
Warrick643890
Hancock638797
Bartholomew626694
Floyd6150105
Wayne5933157
Grant5818110
Dubois544372
Boone534367
Morgan516291
Marshall494184
Henry493664
Cass471760
Noble460557
Dearborn458444
Jackson414745
Shelby402179
Lawrence380575
Clinton364539
Gibson356556
DeKalb337363
Montgomery334851
Harrison328542
Knox327839
Miami309843
Steuben306340
Adams295235
Whitley294125
Wabash293045
Ripley292345
Putnam284847
Huntington283557
Jasper282433
White267538
Daviess261672
Jefferson250738
Fayette242348
Decatur242182
Greene233360
Posey232326
Wells229447
LaGrange224161
Clay217932
Scott216937
Randolph208340
Jennings192535
Sullivan189031
Spencer181917
Fountain179725
Washington177118
Starke171341
Jay162821
Owen159537
Fulton159229
Carroll152115
Orange151433
Rush149918
Perry147227
Vermillion144933
Franklin143433
Parke12908
Tipton128232
Pike113625
Blackford107522
Pulaski95237
Newton89421
Brown85530
Benton84310
Crawford7579
Martin70013
Warren6587
Switzerland6205
Union6113
Ohio4677
Unassigned0374

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 826754

Reported Deaths: 10200
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin97493705
Cuyahoga821781012
Hamilton61350439
Montgomery41700399
Summit33399726
Lucas30111597
Butler29721228
Stark24811400
Warren18917139
Lorain18086212
Mahoning16758335
Lake15365135
Clermont15160104
Delaware1382177
Licking12679132
Trumbull12401302
Fairfield1218480
Greene11631133
Medina11128165
Clark10608264
Wood9964154
Allen9511126
Portage8867105
Miami886573
Richland8790116
Marion7319113
Tuscarawas7142174
Columbiana7085124
Pickaway702850
Wayne6781164
Muskingum671242
Erie5886118
Hancock537890
Ross530287
Scioto519662
Geauga483555
Darke457589
Ashtabula439068
Lawrence432651
Union430628
Mercer424287
Sandusky421862
Seneca413555
Auglaize412759
Huron410338
Shelby410221
Jefferson403366
Belmont395640
Washington372040
Putnam364672
Athens36369
Madison339329
Knox336522
Ashland331738
Fulton325943
Defiance319278
Crawford313268
Preble311534
Brown296619
Logan292729
Ottawa282134
Clinton279043
Williams270166
Highland262418
Jackson256943
Guernsey241725
Champaign240927
Fayette225529
Morrow22294
Perry221318
Holmes218662
Henry210247
Hardin204133
Coshocton197420
Van Wert196644
Gallia190926
Wyandot190549
Adams165615
Pike164116
Hocking163423
Carroll149516
Paulding139021
Noble117840
Meigs103221
Monroe95629
Harrison8568
Morgan79128
Vinton67113
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Cloudy
30° wxIcon
Hi: 31° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 20°
Angola
Cloudy
28° wxIcon
Hi: 30° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 19°
Huntington
Cloudy
28° wxIcon
Hi: 29° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 18°
Fort Wayne
Cloudy
30° wxIcon
Hi: 30° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 20°
Lima
Cloudy
29° wxIcon
Hi: 31° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 18°
Seasonal Monday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events