Sexual Harassment on Planes Is an 'Epidemic' for Flight Attendants

Harassment happens everywhere, whether you’re on the ground or in the sky.

In fact, according to Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, sexual harassment on jetliners is an "epidemic.” And it’s not just a problem for passengers — it’s a major issue for the flight attendants, too.

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Nelson spoke to NBC after Randi Zuckerberg, media executive at Facebook and sister of Mark Zuckerberg, spoke out about her incident with a fellow passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight.

While Zuckerberg’s experience is unacceptable and is being investigated, according to airline officials, one op-ed from Runway Girl Network written by Christine Negroni took issue with Zuckerberg putting blame on the flight attendants, who she says have no choice but to continue doing their job. That's not because they didn’t care about Zuckerberg, she notes, but because they are responsible for the safety of everyone on board.

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Zuckerberg’s letter to Alaska Airlines, which she shared on social media, said: “The flight attendants told me he was a frequent flier, brushed off his behavior, & kept giving him drinks.”

Negroni’s op-ed points out that Zuckerberg was offered a different seat and refused, saying in her letter to Alaska Airlines: “Why is it the woman who has to switch seats in this situation? Shouldn’t he have been thrown off the plane?”

While this is a perfectly valid argument anywhere else, in a plane, Nelson explained to RGN, “[flight attendants] have to deal with a close, confined space where you cannot walk away. You cannot call for help. Our biggest challenge is keeping the temperature down.”

In other words, working with someone sober and more predictable is easier than dealing with someone you know to be loud, confrontational, and possibly disruptive.

Many airlines, in spite of having a written policy, seem to lack proper training for flight crews to handle these types of situations, which only puts the employees at risk. “In the absence of an airline policy about this behavior, I wouldn’t have felt empowered to kick the guy off the plane, especially if I hadn’t witnessed it myself,” Tiffany Hawk, a former flight attendant, told RGN. “If we were in the air, forget it. He’d have to be endangering the flight to justify a diversion.”

"There is virtually no guidance or training, no pointing to this issue as a unique issue," Nelson added. "There’s no discussion about it.”

And this lack of discussion often means silence from flight attendants whether they are speaking for a passenger or for themselves. As Nelson told RGN, flight attendants are “daily survivors” of harassment, and they also often don’t report it.

Flight attendants are in an industry where they are unfortunately commonly judged on their looks, and there are many passengers (and coworkers as well) out there who tend to dehumanize the people who serve them. Harassment takes many different forms. Women have often reported getting pinched or grabbed, or getting lewd comments lobbed at them. Men also report experiencing unwanted touching as well as homophobic comments.

Some flight attendants told HuffPo that it’s the “customer is always right” culture that keeps many from speaking up. And airlines remain oblivious.

“They’re not going to stop the plane. And then everyone’s going to be mad at you; you’re not a team player, you’re difficult,” said one flight attendant.

Nelson told HuffPo that airline CEOs (nearly all men) would be “shocked” to find out what’s going on on their planes.

As these cases of harassment arise, just like in Hollywood and other industries, as terrible as they are to hear about, Nelson also said it is the “beginning of the conversation.”

“The more we talk about it and say it’s not OK, the better it will get,” she said.