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Flight attendants battle beastly in-flight behaviour

June 27, 2018 Headline News No Comments Email Email

“Touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed and fondled” were among terms used by flight attendants in a survey which revealed alarmingly that nearly one in five had experienced “physical sexual harassment” from passengers over in the past year.

The survey, conducted in the US by the Association of Flight Attendants, found that more than two-thirds of US flight attendants had experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers – and one in five had witnessed a sexual assault or had a passenger report a sexual assault to them.

US flight attendants said the physical sexual harassment included having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area “touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed, and fondled” both on top of and under their uniforms.  Other abuse included passengers cornering or lunging at them followed by “unwanted hugs, kisses and humping”.

More than one-in-three flight attendants say they have experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers, and nearly one-in-five have experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers, in the last year alone.

Despite the prevalence of abuse and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, 68% of flight attendants say they saw no efforts by airlines to address workplace sexual harassment over the last year.

Industry leaders said that such widespread abuse undermines the ability of flight attendants to perform their safety-specific duties during emergencies, and assist passengers. AFA has welcomed steps taken by the US airlines Alaska, United and Spirit to work with the union to eradicate this behaviour.

“While much of the coverage of the #MeToo movement has focused on high-profile cases in the entertainment industry and politics, this survey underscores why AFA has long been pushing to eradicate sexism and harassment within our own industry,” said AFA President Sara Nelson.

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“The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded. #TimesUp for the industry to put an end to its sexist past.”

For airlines, Nelson stressed, rampant harassment has serious ramifications that go beyond the abuse and assault of workers.

“Flight attendants are first responders. Their authority when responding to emergencies is undermined when they are belittled and harassed.

“Likewise, harassment makes it more difficult for flight attendants to intervene when passengers are harassed by other passengers. Flight attendants must be confident that airline executives will back them up when they respond to and report harassment of crew and passengers.”

The union has called on the entire airline industry to step up to combat harassment and recognise the impact it has on safety. With flight attendants reporting that they often deal with harassment by avoiding further interaction with abusive passengers, airlines must also ensure that staffing levels on flights are sufficient to allow this strategy to work.

AFA also calls on the flying public to take part in demanding an environment that provides flight attendants the respect and dignity they need to do their jobs, protect passengers, and serve as aviation’s first responders.

More than 3500 flight attendants from 29 US airlines participated in the survey. Demographics of participants include gender ratios consistent with national averages of 80% women to 20% men. 

Key findings include:

  • 68% of flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.
  • 35% experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers in the last year.  Of those, 68% faced it three or more times, and a third five or more times in the past year.
  • Flight attendants describe the verbal sexual harassment as comments that are “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive, and dirty.”  They also report being subjected to passengers’ explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, request for sexual “favours” and pornographic videos and pictures.
  • The most common response to passenger verbal harassment, by order of frequency, are to avoid further interaction with the passenger, ignore the harassment, or diffuse/deflect the situation.
  • 18% experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers in the last year.  More than 40% of those suffered physical abuse three or more times.
  • The most common response to passenger physical harassment, by order of frequency, is to avoid further interaction with the passenger, address the harassment directly with the passenger, ignore it, or attempt to diffuse/deflect the situation.
  • Only 7% of the flight attendants who experienced the abuse have reported sexual harassment to their employer.
  • 68% of flight attendants say they have not noticed any employer efforts over the past year to address sexual harassment at work. Alaska, United, and Spirit have led the industry in addressing this issue.

“Harassment of flight attendants is legendary, but this survey shows just how commonplace it remains even during the #MeToo era,” Nelson said.

“It’s time for all of us – airlines, unions, regulators, legislators and passengers – to put a stop to behaviours that can no longer be condoned. The dignity and well-being of flight attendants and the safety of all travellers depend on it.”

Edited by Peter Needham

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