A New York family recently filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines, alleging that the mother and daughter were groped on a flight from New York to Athens last summer. The suit claims the airline bears some responsibility for what happened because the flight attendant continued to serve the accused groper alcohol, even after being alerted to his behavior.
It remains to be seen how the case plays out, but the story by my colleague got me thinking: How does it work, legally, if you’re assaulted in the air? And what should you do if you’re a victim or witness of a crime like this?
I spoke to several experts to find out how sexual assault cases in the air are handled. Above all, everyone I spoke to emphasized that sexual assault victims are never at fault for what happens to them.
Who has jurisdiction over inflight sexual assaults?
According to Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a victim’s rights attorney at the Simpson Tuegel law firm in Dallas, it can get very complicated very quickly figuring out who to report to if you’re sexually assaulted in the air.
In general, she said, federal authorities officially have jurisdiction over these crimes, but local law enforcement officials often learn about and respond to cases first.
“Trying to unravel how, who, and under what laws you might hold someone responsible,” Simpson Tuegel said, “it becomes very complex.”
She added it could be even more complicated on international flights, where authorities abroad may need to get involved.
“It can be a little murky for the airlines and the victims who are reporting,” she said. “The United States doesn’t necessarily do it the best for survivors, but there are certainly places where a woman reporting a violent sex crime, it’s even harder than it is here in the United States.”
Advice for inflight sexual assault victims
Judie Saunders, who leads the sex abuse department at ASK LLP, once again emphasized that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.
➤ “Should you be the victim of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse, you have to remember it is not your fault,” she said, adding that despite the social pressures to keep quiet, it’s important to report what happened as soon as you feel ready.
“The twins of shame and blame keep you silent. It keeps you from not disclosing to law enforcement, to someone that you trust, it keeps you from getting help, and that in and of itself could have the effect of weakening a case that could be brought against the wrongdoer,” she said.
➤ If something happens to you onboard, tell a flight attendant immediately if you feel comfortable doing so. They can help you document the incident and alert authorities on the ground to meet the plane, who can also take a more detailed report.
➤ Beyond alerting authorities, both Saunders and Simpson Tuegel suggested telling someone in your life who you trust about what happened and asking for help from a witness at the moment, if you can.
“That individual being able to speak about it later is helping to corroborate,” Saunders said.
Simpson Tuegel said that having a witness can also help identify the person who committed the assault.
“(If) you don’t have the identity of the perpetrator … unfortunately, your victim is left without information to pursue anything,” she said, adding that witnesses can help collect contact info or can support the victim in speaking to the airline to get that information for themselves.
➤ “Bystanders will want to be helpful, but they’re not really sure what’s going on,” Saunders added. “Pick someone up specifically. ‘Hey miss, in the red shirt, I feel really uncomfortable.’”
➤ And while victims are not at fault in an assault, Saunders said it’s important to trust your gut if you feel uncomfortable while traveling.
“Your intuition is your number one line of defense. That feeling that you get that something’s off, that this person is engaging you in conversation, or looking at you, or following a little too close behind you, that is your indication that you should remove yourself immediately,” she said. “I liken it to the gazelle in the woods. They can’t see the lion, maybe they can’t hear the lion, but they get that feeling in their gut to be on alert.”
Simpson Tuegel and Saunders also said that if a victim has the presence of mind after the incident to document what happened, that can be helpful, too.
How can witnesses help?
For witnesses to an assault, the best things you can do are to help the person get out of the situation before it happens and be prepared to assist them in finding help and reporting the incident after if you can’t stop it from happening preemptively.
“If you’re a witness or a bystander and you see something that does not comport to something that is normal, keep yourself safe, but maybe pull out your video camera,” Saunders said, adding that if it’s safe to do so, you should try to intervene and help the potential victim extricate themselves from the situation.
“ ‘Ma’am, sir, are you feeling OK?’ ” she said. “Distraction is one thing that we know in general can stop some type of assault, but obviously safety is always key.”
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Are airlines on the hook for onboard sexual assault?
It can be complicated and may vary case-by-case, but Simpson Tuegel said it would be smart for most carriers to develop a process for handling incidents like this.
In a statement about the ongoing lawsuit, a Delta spokesperson told USA TODAY that the airline always cooperates in investigations when they are made aware of inappropriate conduct onboard.
“Delta has zero tolerance for customers who engage in inappropriate or unlawful behavior, and we will always support our people as we manage through the litigation. Delta also works with law enforcement when conduct is reported,” the statement said.
Even so, Simpson Tuegel said airlines should be careful to realize that close proximity of strangers on airplanes could be a recipe for issues.
“We’ve all felt that situation where you don’t have space on the armrest … That makes you even more vulnerable and in many ways, easier for someone to cross that line,” she said. “It doesn’t mean airlines are necessarily always on the hook for it, but they’ve created those tight spaces, and it’s their duty, then, to be responsive when passengers are communicating that someone isn’t just hanging over their armrest, they’re touching them.”
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter and columnist for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at email@example.com