August 8, 2017

Are you protected from sexual assault in the skies?

With jurisdiction unclear, many women feel vulnerable to in-flight assault.

Allison Dvaladze was nodding off on one of her frequent red-eye transatlantic flights, this time to Amsterdam, when she was startled awake by a hand in between her legs. Stunned, she hit the stranger in the neighbouring seat and yelled, "No!" He assaulted her again, and again, until she managed to unbuckle her seatbelt and run down the aisle to look for help. But she found little - The crew asked her what she wanted them to do. It was at that moment Allison realized that there were no protocols in place for sexual assault in the sky, and she began a years-long quest to have her case properly addressed.

Airspace jurisdiction controlled on a national level, and in the United States it falls under the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That's where Allison eventually filed her complaint. To her knowledge, over a year later, the case is still open. The man who repeatedly assaulted her was allowed to walk off the plane with the rest of the passengers.

Numbers on in-flight sexual assault are hard to come by, as there is no centralised database or universal policy clearly laying out what to do in the event of an incident. A spokesperson for the FBI says the agency investigated 57 such cases in 2016, 17 more than the previous year. But experts say that number is likely far more, since victims of sexual violence often do not report it.

Recently, Air India announced it was going to start reserving rows for solo women travelers.  And another airline is offering what they’re calling the "Women Flyer Service" - assistance with bags and giving them the preferred window and aisle seats so women do not find themselves sitting between two men.

But some say these solutions don’t get to the heart of the problem. Critics say women should not have to be segregated to prevent sexual assault.

On this episode, whose responsibility is it to address sexual assault when it happens in-flight, and how can it be prevented?

On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Allison Dvaladze @papsanow1

Sanjiv Kapoor @thesanjivkapoor
Chief Strategy and Commercial Officer, Vistara Airline

Laura Palumbo @laurapalumb0
Communications Director, National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Sara Nelson @FlyingwithSara
International President, Association of Flight Attendants

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.