Senate Letter to DoJ & FAA on Onboard Sexual Assaults

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Onboard Sexual Assault

Senate Letter to DoJ & FAA

onboard sexual assaultSenator Warner and 25 of his Democratic colleagues plus Representative Norton have two different, yet complementary responses to the need to address sexual assaults on aircraft. Both announcements of the respective bill introductions indicate that the legislation is needed in light of recent onboard attacks which suggest more attention from the U.S. Department of Justice and the FAA must be initiated.

“As our country continues to combat the threat of violence against women, it is critical that no space be immune to the protections and support we afford survivors of sexual assault…We must do all we can to ensure passengers’ rights and health are protected, flight crews are fully trained and equipped to handle sexual assaults, and that pertinent information is being reported to law enforcement to ensure justice,” was the message of the Senators.

Their letter noted that “federal law makes clear that sexual abuse offenses that are criminal under 18 U.S.C. are also criminal when committed in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.” The position of the bill’s signers was that the Federal Aviation Administration is “tasked with carrying out duties related to aviation safety, including sexual assault.” The letter’s footnote, supporting that absolute conclusion, includes a link that does not work. Thus, it is not possible to review the legal basis.

Most FAA personnel would be hard pressed to cite the authority to take criminal action for in flight sexual assault. Equally, it would be surprising if an aircraft crew member knew that it was within their power to charge the alleged perpetrator.

onboard sexual assaultThat is not to say that the absence of such apparent authority would deter anyone from intervening immediately if such a violation was occurring. Most airlines have implicit or explicit policies prohibiting consensual sexual acts during flight. In a public place passengers find such behavior unacceptable. Thus, once aware of ANY such unwanted action, the airline representatives would have to intervene.

If, however, the footnote does provide clear authority, as suggested by the letter, this 26 Senator letter should advance industry knowledge of such authority.

The Senators’ letter correctly observes that the FARs establish training programs for flight attendants and crewmembers. It follows that comment with the assumption that “there are no explicit guidelines for handling sexual assault.” If nothing else, these sentences support that the industry knowledge/awareness of the existing authority of the FAA and under delegation, the airlines, to prosecute is limited.

The letter to Attorney General Lynch and Administrator Huerta recites the relevant information which would justify legislative and or regulatory action:

 “The National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that women experience approximately 270,000 sexual assaults each year, and more than 90 percent of sexual assaults recorded are committed against women. The aftermath of a violent or sexual crime can be psychologically, physically, or financially devastating for a survivor. Long distance flights often occur overnight. There are extended periods where no flight attendants walk through the aircraft cabin, and many guests sleep before landing in a different time zone. Such characteristics could make long distance flights a particularly hazardous place for travelers by presenting a prime opportunity for these crimes to occur. All passengers should be able to travel without the worry of being sexually assaulted. We must support those with authority, like flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots, to ensure that an incident of sexual assault is halted, prevent a repeated attack, support and help the survivor, and ensure the event is documented and reported to the proper authorities.”

Next the missive includes some useful suggestions:

  • Convene stakeholders and establish a working group with the relevant federal agencies; unions representing flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots; airlines; Office of Victims of Crime; law enforcement; and sexual assault advocacy organizations to discuss and identify the issues and gaps, and develop policy solutions to support survivors of sexual assault;
  • Collect data to understand the prevalence of sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft among passengers, flight attendants, crewmembers, and pilots; and
  • Identify, collect, and develop federal rules, guidelines and best practices for responding to sexual assault aboard commercial aircraft, including guidance on timely reporting.”

These actions should help define the degree of the problem, the resources available for response (sky marshals, law enforcement officers [who typically identify themselves to the crew], signs for early intervention, tactics for interdiction/restraint, properly documenting the allegations, notification of the authorities (federal, state, local), etc.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) attached a proposal to require the FAA to keep track of sexual assaults that are committed on airplanes. Norton said her measure, which has been dubbed the Protecting Airline Passengers from Sexual Assaults Act, would help close a loophole in sexual assault reporting that occurs because in-flight sexual assaults are often not investigated properly due to murky jurisdiction rules.

It is likely that Justice, the Department of Transportation and the FAA will follow these suggestions. Coincidentally, the FAA recently issued guidance to the airlines with regard to Enhanced Training for Flight Attendants (F/A) – Human Trafficking Recognition and Response, a subject of considerable concern to all in aviation, and one previously mentioned here. Some of the practical advice and tactics of that InFo may be relevant to preventing and prosecuting such assaults.


ARTICLE: FAA sex assault tracking requirement offered as amendment

ARTICLE: Sen. Warner Urges FAA & DOJ to Protect Women from Sexual Assault on Airplanes
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