The FBI in Maryland is warning travelers taking to the skies this summer to be cautious as airlines nationwide have seen a recent spike in the number of sexual assaults reported on commercial flights.
The assaults, which typically occur on long overnight flights, are “increasing every year . . . at an alarming rate,” said David Rodski, an FBI special agent assigned to investigate crimes out of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
“This is statistically still very rare; however, it is very good advice for people traveling to have situational awareness,” said Rodski, one of several law enforcement officials who gathered at the airport Wednesday to warn travelers about the disturbing trend.
In 2014, airline passengers reported 38 instances of sexual assault on flights, compared with 63 reports in 2017, according to the FBI.
Rodski said the reports are coming from airports across the country and urged passengers to flag assaults immediately so law enforcement officials can effectively investigate and prosecute the cases.
“What we’re finding is a lot of people do not report the act” or report long after the incident occurs, Rodski said. “Hit that call button . . . notify the flight crew immediately.”
Brian Nadeau, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore Division, said sexual assault on an airplane falls within the FBI’s jurisdiction and is a federal crime that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Nadeau said assaults range from strangers grazing other passengers to explicit acts. The assaults typically involve alcohol, a passenger who is asleep, or someone who is sitting in a middle or window seat when the cabin lights are darkened. Nadeau warned passengers on red-eye flights to be particularly careful if they’ve taken medication or sleep aids.
“We find offenders will often test their victims, sometimes brushing up against them to see how they will react or if they will wake up,” Nadeau said. “Do not give these offenders the benefit of the doubt.”
Renee Murrell, an FBI victim specialist in Baltimore, said many sexual assaults on airplanes go unreported because victims are ashamed or blame themselves.
“They are very scared and they don’t know what to expect,” Murrell said. In some cases of passengers assaulted while they’re asleep, “you wake up and you really don’t know what happened.”
Paul Hudson, president of the airline consumer organization Flyers Rights, said victims may not be reporting assaults on airplanes because the process can be onerous and flight attendants do not always have clear guidelines for how to handle complaints.
Hudson and others have called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would create standards for enforcement and reporting.
“If you’re a victim of a crime on the ground, what do you do?” said Hudson, who is an attorney and represented rape victims in New York. “You call 911 and report it to a police officer. But if you’re in an airplane, you can’t do that. You have to report through a flight attendant, and they have to report it to the captain, and the captain has to report it to a ground supervisor for the airline. . . . In many cases, too much time has passed.”
The union representing flight attendants recently conducted a survey asking about reports of passenger-on-passenger sexual assaults.
About 20 percent of 2,000 flight attendants who responded said they had received a report of a passenger-on-passenger assault while working, but law enforcement got involved only half the time. They complained that airlines often do not offer written guidance or training on how to handle such reports, the union said, with flight attendants relying on their own “resourcefulness” to intervene.