News Releases

Senators: “We strongly believe we must take action to address sexual assault and harassment, no matter where it occurs”

In recent years, news reports have detailed passengers experiencing assault and harassment while on airplanes – but no data collection or formal rules exist to combat the issue 

It’s not just passengers, but also flight attendants: 68 percent of flight attendants reported experiencing sexual harassment 

In letter, senators urge Secretary Chao to follow Congressional direction and create a task force to establish federal rules and guidelines to ensure flight crews are better prepared to properly respond to and address sexual assault and harassment on airplanes, including training, reporting, and data collection

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) led a group of their colleagues to call on U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to address the ongoing problem of sexual assault and harassment onboard commercial airplanes. In a letter to Secretary Chao, the senators pointed to a 2017 survey of nearly 2,000 flight attendants that showed one out of five responding flight attendants experienced a report of passenger on passenger sexual assault while working on a flight, yet the vast majority of responding flight attendants—91.5 percent—reported no knowledge of written guidance and/or training specific to onboard passenger sexual assault available through their airline. What’s more, nearly 70 percent believed such training to be important or very important.

A 2018 survey also showed flight attendants were subject to sexual harassment, with 68 percent of responding flight attendants experiencing sexual harassment during their flying careers, with 35 percent experiencing verbal sexual harassment by passengers in the last year and 18 percent experiencing physical sexual harassment by passengers in the last year.

The senators urged Secretary Chao to follow Congressional direction and establish a task force to address in-flight sexual assault and harassment, writing: “We strongly believe we must take action to address sexual assault and harassment, no matter where it occurs…The Task Force’s work is critical to informing the appropriate federal rules and guidelines to ensure the rights and health of all passengers are preserved, flight crews are trained and equipped to handle incidents of sexual assault and harassment, and the pertinent information is being reported to law enforcement to ensure justice.”

(Read the full text of the letter below, or click on the PDF here.)

The 2018 spending bill directed the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration to establish federal rules and guidelines for airlines on responding to and addressing sexual assault and harassment on airplanes by March 23, 2019, and to create the National In-Flight Sexual Assault Task Force to help develop these rules and guidelines on training, reporting, and data collection.

“Taking action to put in place good policy, reporting, training and other resources to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual assault from aviation is long overdue,” said Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President. “We urge Secretary Chao to move quickly to establish the National InFlight Sexual Assault Taskforce to protect passengers and the people who make aviation fly. Senators Murray and Casey’s persistent advocacy on this issue has garnered support from fellow lawmakers to tackle what until recently has been a silent epidemic in every corner of our country. These Congressional efforts to provide meaningful change will make us all safer in aviation.”

Signees of the letter include: Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Robert Casey (D-PA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Margaret Hassan (D-NH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Gary Peters (D-MI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN),  Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

 

June 13, 2018

 

The Honorable Elaine L. Chao

Secretary

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20590

 

Dear Secretary Chao:

As you work to implement the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-141), we urge you to take swift action as directed by Congress to address the ongoing problem of sexual assault and harassment onboard commercial airplanes. We have heard from constituents and seen media reports of passengers sharing their experience of being sexually assaulted or harassed on an airplane by other passengers. During a recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Appropriations you described these incidents as “horrible” and agreed that “we need to do something about that.”[1] We appreciate your recognition of the problem, and ask that you take immediate steps to establish federal rules and guidelines to ensure flight crews are better prepared to properly respond to and address sexual assault and harassment on airplanes, including training, reporting, and data collection.

Over the past year, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA conducted two surveys of flight attendants which underscore the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment onboard airplanes. The 2017 survey of nearly 2,000 flight attendants found one out of five responding flight attendants experienced a report of passenger on passenger sexual assault while working on a flight. Despite this high rate of occurrence, 91.5 percent of responding flight attendants reported no knowledge of written guidance and/or training specific to onboard passenger on passenger sexual assault available through their airline, however, 69.8 percent believed such training to be important or very important.[2] More recently, and equally as disturbing, the 2018 survey of more than 3,500 flight attendants found 68 percent of responding flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers, with 35 percent experiencing verbal sexual harassment by passengers in the last year and 18 percent experiencing physical sexual harassment by passengers in the last year.[3]

Federal law makes clear that sexual abuse offenses that are criminal under 18 U.S.C. are also criminal when committed in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.[4] During Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a public awareness campaign to alert travelers and the public that sexual assault onboard aircraft is a federal crime. According to the FBI, which has jurisdiction over cases of in-flight sexual assault, 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to the FBI in Fiscal Year 2014 and this figure increased to 63 cases in the last fiscal year.[5]

We believe more must be done by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address in-flight sexual assault and harassment, from properly training personnel to gathering data about the prevalence of these incidents. That is why we worked to include direction in the Fiscal Year 2018 spending bill requiring the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings within DOT and the FAA to “establish Federal rules and guidelines, based on best practices, for air carriers to respond to and address sexual assault and sexual harassment onboard commercial aircraft within 1 year of enactment of this act.”[6] This should include initial and annual training of flight attendants, pilots, and other relevant airline employees or contractors, reporting, and data collection. A key component to developing these rules and guidelines is the National In-Flight Sexual Assault Task Force (Task Force), which should represent the diverse set of federal agencies and stakeholders who have a role to play in properly addressing this problem.

Given the urgency of this matter, we ask that you establish the Task Force in short order and remind you the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings must submit an initial report on the Task Force’s recommendations to Congress within 180 days of March 23, 2018. The Task Force’s work is critical to informing the appropriate federal rules and guidelines to ensure the rights and health of all passengers are preserved, flight crews are trained and equipped to handle incidents of sexual assault and harassment, and the pertinent information is being reported to law enforcement to ensure justice. In order for the Task Force to have adequate time to make meaningful recommendations, we urge you to establish the Task Force no later than June 30, 2018.

We strongly believe we must take action to address sexual assault and harassment, no matter where it occurs. We appreciate your efforts to ensure the safety of air travel and look forward to working with you on this important matter.

Sincerely,

 

cc:  The Honorable Daniel K. Elwell, Acting Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration

      The Honorable Jeff Sessions, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

      The Honorable Alex M. Azar II, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services



[1] Secretary Chao: “First of all, let me say I think that is horrible what—these incidences and so we need to be vigilant and we need to do something about that and so we’ve just gotten the instruction from the Omnibus and that was just last week. So, of course, we will proceed.” Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, Senate Committee on Appropriations, Review of the FY2019 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Transportation, April 11, 2018.

[2] On Board Sexual Assault Survey Findings, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, April 2017.

[3] Survey Reveals Widespread Harassment of Flight Attendants, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, May 10, 2018.

[4] U.S. Attorney’s Manual, Criminal Resource Manual, Certain Crimes Aboard Aircraft in Flight §1412.

[6] Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2018 (Senate Report 115-138), Page 11.