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Many US flight attendants lack the training in how to deal with complaints of on-board sexual harassment, an industry union and Democratic lawmakers say, raising questions about whether airlines are prepared to protect passengers from predatory men.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight this week when Alaska Airlines promised to investigate a complaint by Randi Zuckerberg, a Silicon Valley executive and sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, that a male passenger seated near her made lewd sexual remarks to her.
Reuters could not independently verify Zuckerberg’s allegation. Alaska Airlines did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Friday.
Zuckerberg’s complaint comes at a moment of reckoning in the United States over sexual harassment, with nearly daily headlines about rich and powerful men in entertainment, politics and media being felled by complaints of impropriety or worse.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which represents employees of Alaska Airlines and several other carriers, said some airlines have guidelines specific to dealing with accusations of passenger-on-passenger sexual misconduct. But those policies are rarely highlighted and staff are often unaware of any specific guidance, it said.
Last year, at the request of the US Congress, the group surveyed its members on their awareness of guidelines for dealing with accusations of sexual harassment and assault and found that more than half of the nearly 2,000 respondents had no knowledge of any specific policies.
“This is different than if someone punches you in the face,” AFA spokeswoman Taylor Garland said. “There can be shame associated with it. It’s just a very unique crime.” Democratic lawmakers in the Republican-controlled US.
Senate have complained for more than a year about a lack of guidance given to airlines and their flight crews on how to deal with sexual harassment.
Senators Bob Casey and Patty Murray, among others, wrote to the US Department of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in October last year urging them to do more to track incidents and to strengthen federal rules and guidelines. They also introduced a bill this year mandating better tracking and clearer rules, but it has not become law.
“It’s clear this Congress needs to act sooner rather than later to truly address this issue and make sure survivors get the support and help they deserve,” Murray said in a statement on Friday.
A committee on in-flight sexual assault formed earlier this year by the US Justice Department met as recently as June, the FAA said, but declined to give details of any proposed guidelines.
While airlines did not provide a number of complaints, the problem of onboard sexual misconduct is not new, even if its frequency is not well tracked.
There have been a handful of successful prosecutions in recent years against people caught sexually harassing other passengers, but they typically involve physical contact.
In 2015, a Catholic priest who groped a sleeping woman on a US Airways flight was sentenced to six months in federal prison after being convicted of abusive sexual contact.
In 2016, a woman told the New York Times that President Donald Trump had groped her during a flight to New York around 1980, when she was 38. Trump denied the woman’s claims, telling the newspaper “none of this ever took place.” The policy for any potential criminal behaviour onboard a flight, including acts of alleged sexual misconduct, is to reach out to law enforcement officers, who will meet the plane at the gate upon landing to investigate the incident.
Airlines have different policies and training in place to deal with passenger disruptions.