Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

Dallas — From Southwest’s “hostesses” in the 1970s to Hooters Air to the Vietnamese budget carrier whose flight attendants were made to wear bikinis, airlines have a long history of sexualising the role of flight attendants.

Their victimisation continues to this day. More than a third of flight attendants say they have experienced sexual harassment over the past year, with almost one in five suffering physical assaults such as touching or groping, according to a 2018 survey of 3,500 attendants by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) union.

Last year, the #MeToo movement’s exposure of ghastly workplace behaviour finally reached the airlines. As part of legislation funding the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), US Congress formed a task force aimed at addressing sexual misconduct up in the sky. Its goal was to review airline training and incident reporting so as to better protect employees and passengers.

“It needs to be that we have a zero-tolerance policy,” says Lyn Montgomery, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant for the past 27 years. “You don’t get away with something in the air that you can’t on the ground.”

In November, the Trump administration put its stamp on the effort, shifting the 14-member task force under a four-person Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (Acpac) that reports to US transportation secretary Elaine Chao. “The #MeToo movement seems to be making an impression in a lot of different areas,” says Judith Kaleta, the US department of transportation’s deputy-general counsel and the task force’s chair. “Organisations are putting new policies in place.”

Mixing alcohol with public incivility in a small enclosed space can create a hostile environment for anyone — but especially for flight attendants, who must interact with passengers

Consumer advocates and flight attendants, however, accuse Chao of putting the task force squarely in the pocket of airline management. The department has excluded consumer advocates and the AFA, which has focused on combating harassment, while putting a representative of an anti-regulation, pro-business group on the advisory committee overseeing the task force.

“Failing to include a genuine consumer representative with experience and expertise in consumer travel issues is yet another example of how the department is dedicated to the profits of the airline industry at the expense of consumers,” Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, a consumer-advocacy group, said in a statement.

Mixing alcohol with public incivility in a small enclosed space can create a hostile environment for anyone — but especially for flight attendants, who must interact with passengers. The purpose of the task force is to help standardise how illegal behaviour is reported, since right now procedures vary by carrier, and even by incident. Another goal of the legislation was to facilitate industry-wide crew training.

Corporate representatives of the airlines have praised the initiative. Allison Ausband, Delta Air Lines’ senior vice-president for in-flight services, says we “totally changed our training” after the carrier began listening to flight attendants’ stories amid #MeToo news coverage. Ausband and Sharon Pinkerton, a senior vice-president at Airlines for America, the airline industry’s Washington lobbyist group, represent the companies on the task force. (Delta isn’t part of the trade group.)

“This was a huge opportunity for us to make it safer for them and our customers by providing more training,” Ausband says. “The committee really is a platform for putting sexual assault under a microscope.”

Bureaucratic obstacle course

In-flight sexual abuse cases fall under federal jurisdiction, and are thus subject to stiff penalties, including potential prison time. But the typical victim of sexual misconduct at 35,000 feet faces a bureaucratic obstacle course to seek criminal charges, according to flight attendants and consumer advocates.

Generally, a flight attendant must first notify the captain, who reports the incident to the airline’s dispatch staff, who would then call airport law enforcement agencies to meet the aircraft at its arrival gate, according to flight attendants. The FBI is the law enforcement agency that handles such incidents.

“It’s all based on the airline policy or the whim of the individual, and we think 90% of these things get lost in that daisy chain of reporting,” says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a passenger advocacy group. Once the plane lands and the passengers disperse, it’s too late, says Hudson, a former chief attorney for the New York State crime victims board. “Speed is essential in these type of things.”

The current reporting system can be cumbersome for both victims and flight attendants, who need greater training, says Sara Nelson, president of the AFA, which has 50,000 members working at 20 airlines. The union, which has been seeking reform of airline policies on sexual misconduct, was excluded from the task force by Chao.

She compares dealing with sexual harassment or assault to an onboard emergency, like when noxious fumes fill the cabin or a passenger falls ill. Flight attendants should act immediately based on their training

“If we had airports and airlines working together on this from the airport to the front of the airplane and back out to the cabin, it would be so much more effective,” says Nelson, a 23-year attendant with United. “Make it integrated into the entire operation. 

Perhaps the biggest disincentive for airlines to keep tabs of how attendants — or passengers — are sexually harassed or assaulted is that they don’t have to. There is no federal law requiring them to report incidents or keep records of complaints. This curbs the number of investigations, Hudson said.

“It’s fair to say that some incidents don’t get reported in a timely manner, which really hampers the ability of law enforcement to respond and investigate,” says Christopher Bidwell, a senior vice-president of security at the Airports Council International, North America in Washington, a lobbyist organisation for airports.

Still, some airlines are viewed by flight attendant unions as more responsive than others. The AFA has lauded Alaska Air Group for implementing a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and United Continental Holdings for public comments on the issue by its CEO. Seattle-based Alaska was thrust into the #MeToo spotlight in late 2017 when former Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg, sister of founder Mark Zuckerberg, detailed her experience of being subjected to “explicit, lewd and highly offensive sexual comments” by another passenger on an Alaska flight to Mexico.

FlyersRights has suggested to the FBI that it establish an internet hotline for airline passengers’ sexual-assault reports, since most US aircraft now have WiFi, Hudson says. The organisation has also sought FBI and justice department records on in-flight sex assault investigations and prosecutions.

Montgomery, the veteran Southwest flight attendant, also serves on the federal task force. She compares dealing with sexual harassment or assault to an onboard emergency, like when noxious fumes fill the cabin or a passenger falls ill. Flight attendants should act immediately based on their training, she says: “We want that to be as automatic when there is an incident of sexual misconduct. It’s fair to say that some incidents don’t get reported in a timely manner.”

The AFA asked Chao to reconsider her decision to exclude the flight attendants union, North America’s largest, from the task force. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Nelson says. “We’ve done the deep work on it, to actually drive this issue.”

Kaleta, the task force’s chair, says the law allowed Chao discretion in choosing its members. “You may not have everyone at the table who thinks they should have been appointed.” 

Consumer advocates, meanwhile, criticise Chao’s appointment of Frances Smith, a fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), as the task force’s consumer representative. The right-wing Washington organisation, which was founded in 1984 by Smith’s husband, said it works to advance “the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty”.

Smith is also a member of Acpac, the advisory committee which oversees the task force. The committee will formulate recommendations for Chao based on a report by the task force, which is due in early October.

Chao spoke at the CEI’s annual dinner in June 2017, commending the group for its early support of transferring air traffic control from the FAA to a private organisations, an effort the US airline industry has been pushing since the Obama administration.

The CEI declined to comment, referring questions about Smith to the US department of transportation. An agency spokesperson says Smith had worked to support consumer protection efforts and oversaw resolution of sexual harassment issues during her time “as a female manager in the financial services industry”.

At an April 4 meeting of the advisory committee — its first — Smith said good policy requires extensive research and avoiding proposals that “look like quick fixes ... I think we have to look at the trade-offs. We have to look at unintended consequences”'