Sex on the plane is a disaster from a flightcrew standpoint, plain and simple. This isn’t a question of morality, which is none of my business. Rather, it’s a question of the captain’s responsibility and accountability for everything that happens in flight. So forget the nudge-wink-“stays in Vegas” marketing and “mile high club” mythology promoted by aging pinky-ring lotharios like Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson. Contrary to the fantasy, reality includes both filth and felony.
Consider the situation objectively and the problem becomes clear. First, the aircraft is a sealed environment with little personal space and nearly zero privacy. The latter fact alone should discourage behaviors that would lead to arrest and indecency charges in any other public place, but it doesn’t. And there’s an even darker side.
An NBC News report cited a recent increase in sexual assaults in flight. FBI agents say these crimes are difficult to prosecute because upon landing, potential witnesses scatter and are difficult to locate for testimony. Neither the FAA nor the NTSB keeps track of these crimes statistically, making organized prevention difficult. Adding to the challenge is the reality that a darkened aircraft, particularly on late night flights, is tough to monitor, especially with an average ratio of one flight attendant per 50 passengers on a full flight.
There’s little personal space between airline passengers, often strangers, and many times the victims are asleep at the time of assault. Frequently these cases involve unaccompanied minors with little ability to defend themselves and on a full flight, in the air, there’s literally nowhere to go to escape. According to FBI Supervisory Special Agent Drew Ptasienski, victims of inflight assaults have also pretended to sleep through the attacks and this coping strategy may make an assault appear consensual to nearby passengers when the situation is really anything but.
Flight attendants are prepared to handle assault reports from passengers in flight, and the cockpit crew is more than willing to have federal law enforcement officers meet the aircraft on landing to investigate every case. Nonetheless, many assaults go unreported due to the shocking effect they have on the victims. According to Ptasienski, “Victims are so shocked they’re being assaulted, it takes them awhile to process it.” By the time they do, witnesses are dispersed and evidence gone.
Clearly, there needs to be a viewpoint shift among passengers in particular, to see “intimate” behavior in flight as completely unacceptable, consensual or otherwise: in many cases, passengers assumed what they’d witnessed was consensual, but in reality was a predator assaulting a victim. Yet if all passengers immediately reported every instance to the crew, no matter how things “appeared,” (a simple chime of the call button will bring assistance) the risk would be reduced for all potential victims.
Although such a strict and uncompromising vigilance and action would likely deter sexual assault in flight, such customer awareness runs counter to some marketing strategies. For example, according to a recent Slate article, Virgin Atlantic promises “a more intimate flight” than other airlines, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson encourages passengers to flirt and hook up on board:
Seriously? Consider the fact that a Today Show scientific analysis rated the aircraft lavatory as the “second germiest place” you’ll ever experience–virtually a flying outhouse, a mile high Petri dish–and rethink the “romantic” aspect.
Consider also the question of what behavior should be tolerated by nearby passengers, especially when faulty assumptions can mask criminal actions, as noted above. Definitely, at least on the part of the crew, zero tolerance is essential, because notwithstanding Virgin’s claim that their crews “are not the type to interrupt” an amorous romp on the plane, after-the-fact accusations, questions of legal age, STDs, and unfortunately, drugs or alcohol will have to be accounted for by those responsible (read: the crew) for the safety of all aboard.
Then the question would be, why didn’t the crew intervene? Why did the crew allow this?
Ironically, despite the cheesy Virgin ad campaign, the reality for frisky Virgin passengers can be anything but romantic. Worse, the “more intimate flight” and such leering Branson “mile high club” marketing may backfire on an airline if a liability suit regarding an in-flight assault lands in court. Ultimately, airline crews have zero tolerance for any behavior on board that violates the law and victimizes any passengers. Flight attendants work hard to spot threats in the cabin, including human trafficking and illegal, threatening behavior.
But that’s not enough: two crucial changes are vital. First, passengers need to be both aware and intolerant of any such activity on board, never assuming that it is consensual. All incidents must be brought to the crew’s attention immediately.
And second, airline marketing strategy needs to evolve (most have–but not all) from the sniggering throwback sexual innuendo to less risky, more proactive and twenty-first century intolerance for a potential felony masked as “intimacy.” If Richard Branson wants to encourage membership in “the mile high club,” he should advertise hotel rooms in Denver.
Sex on the plane? More than just indecency in a public seat or a filthy lav–although it is every bit of that–worse, it’s a real threat, with real victims: see it, report it, stop it. Anything less makes you part of the disaster.