For many U.S. flight attendants, navigating lewd comments or unwanted touching by passengers is a troublesome but all too common reality of their jobs, with two out of three flight attendants saying they’ve experienced sexual harassment during their careers, according to a survey released Thursday.
One out of three who responded to the survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants said they’d experienced verbal sexual harassment within the last year, with many reporting that they experienced lewd remarks five times or more during that time span.
One in five said they’d been subject to physical harassment in the past year, including grabbing of their breasts, buttocks and crotch areas, or being cornered by passengers for unwanted hugs or kisses.
In many cases, flight attendants felt they lacked formal training and support from their carriers for dealing with the harassment.
The survey of 3,500 flight attendants from 29 U.S. airlines is an attempt to measure a problem that has been spoken about anecdotally for decades, dating back to an era when young, pretty and single flight attendants were a core part of many carriers’ marketing strategies.
And while the days of hot pants and go-go boots may be over, sexual harassment of a workforce that is still largely female persists, said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, including American Airlines subsidiary Envoy Air.
“We’ve got some unique conditions on the plane. It has been defined as a place for objectification, as a sexy mode of transportation. That has never been denounced,” Nelson said. “This survey confirms we still have a real problem here that has to be addressed in a serious way.”
The survey is part of a growing push to raise awareness and take action against sexual misconduct onboard aircrafts, whether directed at flight attendants or other passengers.
As the #MeToo movement has captured national headlines, more passengers have been speaking up about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault on planes.
A separate survey by AFA published last year found that one in five flight attendants had received a report from a passenger that they were sexually harassed or assaulted during a flight. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has jurisdiction over crimes committed on planes, said it investigated 63 cases of sexual assault on aircraft in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, the fourth year in a row where investigations have increased.
Passengers’ stories, along with attention called to the issue by the AFA and consumer watchdog groups, have prompted legislative efforts to require federal regulators to study the problem in more depth.
Until recently, airlines have largely avoided addressing the problem directly, and many still don’t have specific training around how to deal with sexual harassment or misconduct that takes place during a flight.
More than two-thirds of the respondents to the AFA survey said they haven’t noticed efforts by employers to address sexual harassment at work over the past year, and just 7 percent of those who experienced abuse reported it to their employer.
The most common responses by flight attendants, according to the survey, is to avoid further interaction with the passenger, ignore the harassment or attempt to deflect the situation.
“We’ve never been given any assurances that our reports would be taken seriously,” Nelson said. “There have to be protocols that everyone follows to make sure we’re keeping the space safe.”