35,000 Feet in the Air: Where Sexual Harassment Can Still Get a Pass

When I first started working as a flight attendant, a CEO of a telecommunications giant pinched me on the you-know-what. I didn’t know what to do, so I nervously laughed and ran to the galley where I would’ve cursed him out — if he hadn’t followed me there.

That’s when he did it again. Right in front of my crew.

We all just stood there in disbelief, staring at one another until he disappeared back to his first-class seat. No one said a word. We were all in shock.

I didn’t report it, largely because I didn’t know who to complain to. The union? Human resources? A 1-800 number? I had no clue.

And I figured it was the sort of thing that came with the job of being a flight attendant. I knew the airline wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced by a call to law enforcement over a nonviolent, though unruly, passenger. Especially since the only person offended was me, an employee.

We’ve come a long way from “We really move our tail for you,” and “I’m Cheryl, Fly me.”

But even in this age of “Keep Climbing” and “Fly the Friendly Skies,” sexual harassment happens much more often than it should. (According to a survey done earlier this year, 27% of the flight attendants that responded had been sexually harassed in the previous twelve months.)

Maybe it’s because we come into brief contact with so many people. They come, they go, we never see them again. Anonymity can bring out the worst in people.

Flight attendants aren’t alone. My friend, Bob, a pilot, once had a female passenger put her hands on his behind when he tried to squeeze into a fully occupied exit row to peer out the window to get a look at what might have been a problem with the wing. “Woohoo! Get some!” another woman shouted. Passengers nearby laughed. Bob laughed too. When he returned to the cockpit and told the other pilot what happened, she laughed as well. So did I. Mostly because I can’t imagine a pilot being treated that way.  What it is about airplanes that makes people think it’s okay to behave that way?

When I tweeted I was writing about sexual harassment, a flight attendant on an Asian carrier reached out. Her company policy is to ignore in-flight harassment: It actually states that in her flight manual. And her manager, who is also her union rep, was quick to pull that section out after she complained about unwanted advances from a first-class passenger.

If a passenger reaches out to her in any way — say he invites her to dinner — she’s expected to respond with a thank you and give him a business card with her company email address on it. Once somebody sent her a bra with a note saying it would make her look more sexy. She was instructed to send a thank you. Because it might have come from a corporate VIP.



One comment

  1. No double standards should be tolerated. If the behavior is bad enough that you would be thrown out of a restaurant on the ground, then the airlines should wake up, grow up, and treat any offending pax exactly the same way.

    Having these types of moron pax escorted off the plane by “the boys in blue” after the flight would send a clear and overdue message.

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