One of the first things the stranger did after he took his seat next to Katie Campos was sexually harass her, she says.
Campos was flying from Newark to Buffalo on an approximately 45-minute flight on a United plane, and she said the man repeatedly grabbed her upper thigh, even after she swatted his hand away.
“The second time, I asked him to stop touching me, to which he replied that he wasn’t touching me,” she said in a statement released after she publicized the incident on social media. “The third time, I quickly got out of my seat, went to the back of the plane, and told the flight attendant what happened.”
He was “visibly, highly intoxicated,” Campos said, a claim corroborated by a report made by Buffalo-Niagara transit authority police later.
Campos, the executive director of a Teach For America chapter in Buffalo, was allowed by a flight attendant to move seats, and the man, identified by police as Michael Hildebrand, was met by officers when the plane landed and charged with disorderly conduct.
The episode highlights the challenges of dealing with an unruly passenger on an airplane. And it comes in an era of heightened scrutiny over the treatment and comfort of passengers on airplanes, as social media stories and videos about mistreatment continue to draw wide attention. Campos’s story has drawn focus to yet another space where woman can be targeted for abuse: the select world of plane travel.
Campos shared the episode on social media to describe how uncomfortable she felt the whole flight even as the airline worked to address the situation. The harassment continued even after she moved seats to a row behind the man.
“Shocked by lack of coordinated response,” she wrote, tagging the airline. “#Dobetter.”
In a statement, United said that it had no tolerance for the behavior described by Campos.
“Our pilot requested that local law enforcement meet the aircraft on arrival in Buffalo, after which authorities removed the customer from the flight,” it said in a statement distributed by spokesman Charles Hobart. “We are conducting our own internal review and will support any investigation by local authorities.”
According to a police report, the captain told an officer after the plane landed that three passengers were “assaulted” by a man. An officer found the man in his seat, 26E, and helped him to his feet, noticing a “strong odor” of alcohol. The man was placed in handcuffs, detained and removed from the area as the officers interviewed Campos and other women, neither of whom wanted to pursue harassment charges against the man, according to a police report. He repeatedly told an officer that he was going to Buffalo, according to the police report, and seemed “surprised,” when the officer told him he was already there.
Hildebrand could not be immediately reached for comment.
Campos said that although she and another woman who were sitting in the man’s row were allowed to change seats, she was uncomfortable for the rest of the flight. Her new seat was one row behind the man across the plane’s aisle, she said, and the man continued to harass her and her fiancee on the dark plane.
“He then repeatedly touched my fiance sitting across the aisle from him, and she repeatedly told him to not touch her,” Campos wrote. “While he was repeatedly touching my fiance, he continued to turn completely around in his seat and stare at me and the other woman.”
The episode continued as the flight began to descend for its landing, Campos wrote.
“He continued to grab my fiance and stare at us, and I pushed the call button,” Campos wrote. “The flight attendant got on the speaker and said that they cannot help us during take off and landing. Meanwhile, this man continued to touch people around him and stare at and say things to me and the other woman.”
The only reason the episode ended, she wrote, was because the flight landed.
“What would have happened if this was a 2 hour flight?” Campos wrote. “Thank goodness he did not become violent and belligerent.”
Hobart said there were only three open seats on the flight.
Sexual harassment and abuse on airplanes is a largely unreported but prevalent issue for passengers, according to a report by the Seattle Times. According to a survey done by the Association of Flight Attendants union that the report cited, one out of five attendants said they had dealt with complaints of sexual assault made by passengers. The police were contacted less than half the time, the survey found.
Jessica Leeds, one of the women who have accused President Trump of sexual misconduct, said he groped her in the first-class cabin of a plane during a flight to New York in the 1980s.
Depending on where the crime takes place, harassment on plane can be a federal offense. A 26-year-old man was arrested and charged with abusive sexual contact by the FBI in 2016 after complaints that he had inappropriately touched the 13-year-old he sat next to. An FBI spokeswoman told the Seattle Times that the number of sexual abuse investigations has been growing slowly, up to more than 60 in 2017 as of early December, from 57 in 2016 and 40 the year before.
Campos said she felt like the episode was handled inappropriately, wondering why the man was allowed on the plane in the first place if he was intoxicated.
The airlines, she wrote on Twitter, “need to remove the problem, not the people affected by the problem.”