Perverts On A Plane: Flight Attendants Dealing with Sexual Harassment

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As a flight attendant, it isn't surprising that I, too, have had my fair share of inappropriate behavior and comments by both passengers, male co-workers (specifically pilots and male flight attendants). They've ranged from creepy stares to unnecessary comments about my appearance, body parts and (gag) uniform.

But, I've never allowed it to rattle me much. While their advancements can be gnat-like annoying sometimes, I've learned to deftly swat them away or squash with a cool, yet subtle look that communicates, "you must have lost your muthaf***in' mind to try me."

Fortunately, this tactic has always worked for me.

I know, I've also been lucky to not have endured such atrocious levels of harassment in my short flight attendant career. But,  I've heard stories from co-workers who have. I won't repeat them because I don't have permission. Yet, these stories have ranged from inappropriate grabbing by drunk passengers to extraordinarily lewd comments and actions by asshole pilots. Male, female, gay or straight, every flight attendant has at least one story - most of which have gone unreported to our company.

And the worse I'm sure, remain untold.

The airline industry, like all others industries, has more than its fair share of sexual harassment issues in the workplace. The conversation itself is nothing new. What's new is sexual harassment land is that men are finally being held accountable and getting fired for it. Though I'm not aware of who's on the airlines hit list, I'm sure there are names floating around that deserve an asterisk on our crew manifest.

Historically, flights attendants were all females and hired to be eye candy of the skies. Sexual advances by men were par for the course in our line of work. Nowadays with an understanding by all that there's a greater need for safety, security, and skills, the flight attendant workforce is now comprised of diverse individuals that vary greatly in ethnic background, gender, age and size. But still, the archaic stigma,  juvenile attitudes and overall lack of respect for our role remains. With hotel rooms, bars and exceptionally small workspaces, there's an added layer of complexities to sexual harassment issues for airline companies to examine.

When it comes to training, new hire flight attendant training in the classroom centers on aircraft safety and security. Handling sexual and non-sexual harassment incidents on the plane is still more of an on-the-job, learn-as-you-go thing. The burden often remains on the individual flight attendants to handle matters on their own or with the support of the crew for non-life threatening matters. So honestly, it's not surprising that we're not always sure how to keep passengers safe from perverts because we're also still trying to figure out how to keep ourselves safe.

When it comes to flight attendant safety off of the plane but still on company time, we're given "tips" to keep ourselves safe. For example, when we have a layover with a crew, which doesn't always happen, we're encouraged to let others know about our whereabouts. We're told to follow common sense rules of not disclosing our room number in the presence of non-crew members and to hide your name on identification badge to deter stalkers.

I'm not knocking any of these suggestions. We're hired to be both independent problem solvers and team players. However, there's more that can be done on this issue - obviously. Systematically, more women in leadership roles, better corporate policies, adequate training and an overall cultural shift are the necessary for the airlines industry, too. On a more ground-floor level, here are a few other things that can make a  difference on the front lines for flight attendants:

1  More dialogue and mentors

Flight attendants are taught that constant communication with your crew is essential when it comes to matters of safety and resolving customer complaints. But how to specifically handle sexual predators and perverts at 35,000 feet in the sky is lacking.  However formal mentors to talk to junior flight attendants about how to navigate such territory can also make a difference. But creating formal opportunities as a part of training among all crew members has the potential to shift workplace culture.  As I've gotten older, my tolerance for nonsense of any kind has decreased. I'm more confident and am quick to state what's appropriate and what's not. And I know how to do it professionally. As a mentor to young women both in and out of the industry, I informally share my experiences with how to handle harassment by men.  At work, these informal conversations take place on the jumpseats or at dinner during layovers. But sometimes, they don't take place at all.

2.  More Team Support

Not all pilots are assholes. Actually, most aren't. I always appreciate those who during our pre-flight crew briefing encourage us to not to put up with any shit for the passengers and to let them know immediately about those behaving badly. These pilots are often the ones that respect what we do as flight attendants (or have spouses who are flight attendants. Rarely do we have to worry about getting anything but support from them. Although decreasing in number due to fear of lawsuits, there are still what we call "old-school" pilots and gate agents who aren't afraid to throw customers  (figurately not literally) off the plane for obnoxious behavior. Going back to policies,  airline management that empowers their frontline personnel and trains them properly ensures appropriate handling of uncomfortable situations.

3. Passenger Support

On the CTA train, I often pay attention to that billboard that reads if you see something, say something.  Although not exactly public transport, this can be applied to air travelers. Part of the team that keeps everyone safe and sane on a plane are other passengers. Rather than encouraging bad behavior and looking to flight attendants to handle every single incident petty and major incident, passengers should not be afraid to speak up in mature fashion when they see adults exhibiting child-like behavior.  I'm often still amazed at passengers who give me blank stares and hesitate to even pass a drink to their neighbor sitting in the window seat when it becomes obvious that my hand can't reach so far. They're even hesitant when boarding to even acknowledge the person sitting next to them.

No, it's not a passenger's responsibility or expectation to tackle anyone. I'm definitely not saying it's on the onus of the passenger to handle extreme cases on their own. But those who are also in the vicinity,  being aware and communicative can help. In her book titled Pretty Powerful, author and news anchor Eboni K. Williams asserts a valid point that sexual predators thrive on fear and silence. This is the source of their confidence that has them believe they can get away with doing and saying whatever they please. Therefore, the less fear you have of speaking up and out, the better. The faster you are as a victim or a witness about stopping harassment in its tracks, the better. We as women have to quit laughing at things that aren't funny simply because we're uncomfortable. It takes practice, awareness, confidence, courage and community support. It's not always this simple either.  But my point is that engaging your community of passengers AND flight attendants also matter.  When on a plane, your community includes a hundred or so individuals.

4. Better Reporting Systems

I know who to contact for catering issues, aircraft safety issues, but I have no idea who to call for harassment issues by fellow crew members or passengers.  Nothing for me has been a big deal to date where I need to go see a supervisor or human resources for a formal complaint, but I can't even recite a hotline number. I don't have much information on how to report major or minor sexual harassment issues on a plane.  Such reporting could make a difference to help to identify industry trends.  It can also create effective strategies to deter and deescalate actions that put flight attendants in uncomfortable and even dangerous situations. In order to avoid fines by the FAA for not following regulations, airlines excel at daily communications to us regarding aircraft safety regulations, so I'm confident they can better communicate resources in place for individual safety as well.

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