The FBI held a news conference Wednesday, warning that sexual assaults on commercial flights have risen at an alarming rate. Those most vulnerable are women and unaccompanied minors on red-eye or late night flights.
What's going on?
According to the FBI, there were 38 reported sexual assaults on flights in 2014, and in the last fiscal year, the number jumped to 63. While that is a small fraction compared to the tens of millions of Americans who take flights each year, the uptick has caught the attention of law enforcement — particularly because many victims are afraid to come forward to report crimes of this sort, and they suspect the number is much higher.
"It's increasing at an alarming rate," FBI agent David Rodski said, and that "the vast majority of victims have been in center seats, or predominantly window seats, actually — typically towards the back end of the aircraft.
"Every assault is different; every circumstance is. There's not a specific profile. It's male on female, female on male."
He added, "The aircraft at night, lights are down, people may feel emboldened or powered. That armrest is one of your best defenses in that situation."
But many times, victims were actually asleep and covered with a blanket when they were touched or fondled.
Rodski says that the pattern has been alarming across the U.S.
"We're getting these reports nationwide," he said. "Every airport and every other agent I talk to at airports, they're seeing the same exact thing."
How can this be prevented?
Earlier this year, the FBI launched a campaign called "Be Air Aware," after noticing patterns of behavior by perpetrators. While sleeping pills and alcohol intoxication has become commonplace on aircraft, the intimate seating on a plane means an opportunity to prospective offenders.
The FBI suggests the following precautions:
- Trust your gut. Offenders will often test their victims, sometimes pretending to brush against them to see how they react or if they wake up. "Don't give them the benefit of the doubt," said FBI special agent David Gates, who is based at Los Angeles International Airport. If such behavior occurs, reprimand the person immediately, and consider asking to be moved to another seat.
- Recognize that mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or other medication on an overnight flight increases your risk. "Don't knock yourself out with alcohol or drugs," Gates said.
- If your seatmate is a stranger, no matter how polite he or she may seem, keep the armrest between you down.
- If you are arranging for a child to fly unaccompanied, try to reserve an aisle seat so flight attendants can keep a closer watch on them. Agents have seen victims as young as 8 years old.
- If an incident happens, report it immediately to the flight crew and ask that they record the attacker's identity and report the incident. "Flight attendants and captains represent authority on the plane. We don't want them to be the police officers, but they can alert law enforcement, and they can sometimes deal with the problem in the air," Gates said. The flight crew can also put the offender on notice, which might prevent further problems.