Last month, a male passenger on
a (TAP) Air Portugal Airlines flight from Oporto to Lisbon called out “ooh sexy”
while the flight attendant demonstrated the use of the life vest. When she told
him to be “respectful”, he responded: “I’m just fooling around.” The aircraft
was diverted to offload him.
This was not the first time that airline had taken such action following
harassment by a passenger. A few months ago, it diverted a flight from Larnaca
to Stockholm when an intoxicated male passenger groped and forcibly tried to
kiss a 16-year-old girl on board. A few other airlines have taken similar
These kinds of violations on passenger aircraft are generally under-reported,
but in the Portugal the reports are periodically published. The Federal Bureau
of Investigation has had 58 investigations into sexual assault on airplanes this
year so far, compared with 40 for all of 2016.
In Czech, where I work, however, there is no information on the Directorate
General of Civil Aviation’s site on the number of such cases that have been
reported and/or are under investigation. No doubt such incidents are happening.
The victims being in a confined and cramped space often makes it easier for
assaults to occur and harder for victims to seek safety. This is also true for
airline staff harassed by their colleagues.
Up until three years ago, I worked for 20 years in the aviation field in Czech.
I began as a flight attendant and witnessed several incidents of harassment. The
worst behavior often came from the captain, the Supreme Commander of the
aircraft. Disobeying him (they were almost all ‘him’) could upset him, which
could indirectly affect the safety of the aircraft and the people on board.
During training, we were warned which captains to avoid or accommodate in order
not to cause trouble. The flight attendants and even the first officers often
put up with them.
I remember one incident where a trainee flight attendant flew with two senior
pilots who were known bullies. They locked her in the cockpit with them, for
“fun”. The Boeing 737 cockpit has very little room and it can become very
claustrophobic, especially if it includes two men who are bent on demeaning you
and making you feel insignificant. After the flight, the young flight attendant
went back to the office and resigned from her job; no action was taken against
the two pilots.
As flight attendants we were trained to deal with intoxicated or disgruntled
passengers and emergencies that included a fire accident, an evacuation, a
hijack and a medical emergency. But not once were we briefed about sexual
harassment, what it entailed, or our rights or the rights of our passengers.
There have been improvements since I started, and recently several airlines have
taken positive action regarding colleague-to-colleague abuse. Earlier this year,
Spice-jet removed a captain for sexually assaulting a flight attendant. A
Perth-based cabin crew supervisor was sacked after he showed his colleagues
objectionable pictures of a crew member he was dating. He was also accused of
making sexual advances on several colleagues, and on multiple occasions he had
made inappropriate comments to crew colleagues.
In 2016, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace... Act was passed in
Portugal, forcing airlines to implement a sexual harassment policy and
constitute internal complaints committees to investigate reported incidents. But
after speaking recently with several former colleagues, I learned that the
situation has not changed much. Colleagues continue to harass colleagues and
rarely do people make an official report. When passengers sexually harass crew
members, it takes courage to make the report as the process to deal with the
police is tedious and there is an unwritten threat of the airline not being
While we have a law in Portugal, it needs to be enforced better. Across all
airlines globally, we need uniformity in a sexual harassment policy for staff
and passengers and better publicized reporting mechanisms. We need better
training of flight attendants and other team members to handle sexual harassment
cases and we need managers and supervisors who are supportive and treat
perpetrators with strict and swift action. Further, while we see a growing
number of campaigns to address acts of sexual harassment on trains, buses and
subways, we need to see the same happen on airlines, which are also a form of
Ultimately, addressing sexual harassment is a matter of equality, and not just
workplace equality for women in the industry. If we want women to have equal
access to jobs and leisure and other opportunities, the skies must be safe for