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August 27, 2018

Former Flight Attendant Exposes Lack of Airline Employee Training to Combat Sexual Misconduct

The following is a guest post written by Renae Powers


I used to be a flight attendant, which is something that I am proud and happy to say. Being a part of the airline industry is an experience that I will always cherish! As a flight attendant, I learned so many things, like how hard it is to pour Diet Coke 30,000 feet in the air; how to pack for every situation in a small rollerboard; what to do when the dreaded words, “Brace, Brace, Brace!” come over the PA; how to smile through literally every situation; and many other lessons I never knew I needed to learn. I also experienced things I had always dreamed of doing, like riding shotgun in the cockpit, going to new places, and being immersed in different cultures. I slept in different cities almost every night and met more people than this introverted, small-town girl ever thought possible.

However, there are certain lessons that I did not properly learn before being faced with experiences for which I was utterly unprepared.

For instance, on one flight, as I was walking the galley cart up the aisle after serving the main cabin, I saw an elderly woman openly watching pornography on her laptop. I say openly, because, despite the presence of children in nearby seats, and despite the horrified and shocked faces of several passengers around her, she made no effort to hide her screen. Unsure of how to handle this situation, I went to the senior flight attendant to ask her advice. However, she did not know what to do either and said we should just leave it be unless a passenger complains. So, because we did not have any training on how to deal with such a situation as this, we allowed the woman to continue watching the inappropriate material.

Sadly, this is not the only disturbing experience I had during my time as a flight attendant. More than once, while serving the main cabin, I had to serve men who had just been engaged in masturbation. Yes, you read that right- I had to hand a snack and beverage to a man whose hands had just been touching his genitals! Yet again, I was unprepared on how to handle this awkward situation, which, as I mentioned, happened on more than one occasion.

airline airport harassment
Picture from Renae Powers

While these examples are stories which affected the comfort of the other passengers on those flights, there were many other instances in which I, as a flight attendant, was specifically impacted. On one flight, for instance, there was a male passenger who stared directly at me for nearly the entire flight, even turning around in his seat at times to watch me. When I served him, he grabbed my hand and told me how “beautiful” I was, and what a great a job I was doing. Wearing the mandatory “flight attendant smile”, I thanked him and moved on to the next passenger. At the end of this flight, despite being seated at the very front of the main cabin, this man waited for every single passenger to leave and then motioned for me to come to his seat. He then proceeded to tell me yet again how “beautiful” I was and to ask for a picture with me. The manner in which he had watched me, waited for me, and spoken to me made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I wanted nothing more than to say “No!” and kick him off of the aircraft. However, unsure of how to achieve that goal without angering or offending the man, I turned and asked the other flight attendant if we were permitted to take pictures with passengers. My hope was that she would see how uncomfortable I was and get the hint that I needed her to say no. She didn’t get the hint. I was therefore left with no polite option other than to acquiesce to his request. And now, some strange, creepy man has a picture of me, to use however he sees fit.

In another instance, there was a man who adamantly pushed to know the name and location of the hotel in which the crew and I were staying that night, and what our plans were for the evening. I tried to feign ignorance, but he was so pushy that I ended up alerting the captain and airport security to ensure that the man did not follow us to our hotel van.  This may seem like overkill to some, but those of us who have been involved in the airline industry know how suspicious this man’s actions were.

While these types of circumstances did not necessarily happen every day, other forms of sexual harassment did. Common phrases that were directed at me include, but are not limited to: “How much extra do I have to pay to get you to sit on my lap?”; “Have you joined the ‘Mile High Club’ yet? Would you do that with a passenger?”; “Have you had sex in this bathroom?”; “That red hair with that uniform makes you look so sexy!”; and many more. That just scratches the surface. The point is, sexual harassment on flights is often directed at the crew members themselves.

airline fly sexual harassment
Picture from Renae Powers

Now, many of you may say these situations were easily remediable. The pornography-viewing woman should have been quietly briefed on my airline’s policies regarding what materials are acceptable to be viewed on our flights. The masturbating men should have been firmly reprimanded for their inappropriate behavior. The creepy passenger should have been told that his actions and request made me uncomfortable. I should have spoken up, instead of quietly allowing such actions to continue.

Well, I agree with you. I should have done those things. I should have known my company’s policies. I should have known the protocols for dealing with these situations. So, why didn’t I? How could a good flight attendant, who graduated from ground school as valedictorian, not speak up and ensure that her airline’s rules were being followed, and that sexual harassment of any kind was not being tolerated onboard her flights?

The answer is simple: I was never given training for these kinds of encounters. I did not know the airline’s policies regarding pornography use, sexual misconduct, indecency, etc. I was never taught the proper protocols for dealing with these behaviors.

And, unfortunately, my story is not unique.

My fellow crew members, whether in my crash pad, in the crew rooms, or on my flights, did not know what to do in these situations any more than I did. In fact, just last month I spoke with the Director of Inflight Training at my old airline and was sad to learn from her that there is still no written curriculum for preparing trainees and recurrent students on how to address these problems.

According to recent stories, it seems that this issue is not only occurring at the airline for whom I worked but rather it is an industry-wide problem. In May of this year (2018), a woman aboard a Southwest Airlines flight was witness to the man seated next to her masturbating while watching pornography on his iPad. When she reached out to Southwest via Twitter, she was offered a lame apology and a meal voucher. A similar incident happened in June on a United Airlines flight. A woman saw a man masturbating, but this time alerted the flight crew directly. In response to the woman’s concerns, the crew joked about the man’s actions but did nothing to stop him. All they did was allow the offended passenger to move seats. Both cases show a lack of proper crew/employee training on dealing with the issues at hand.

As a former flight attendant, a woman, and a lover of air travel, I implore the airlines, from the smallest regionals to the giants like Southwest and United, to start educating their employees on how to properly and effectively deal with such inappropriate passenger behaviors as these. An educated crew is an empowered crew, and an empowered crew is much more able to handle difficult circumstances when they present themselves.

It’s time for the airlines to step up and do their part to create a world free from sexual exploitation!

National Center on Sexual Exploitation

Founded in 1962, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) is the leading national organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking and the public health crisis of pornography.

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