Come Fly with Me, Respectively
The continued blight of in-flight sexual harassment
Picture a PanAm flight in the 1950s. A white business man is drinking whiskey on a luxury flight. Right beside him a blonde, white and slim stewardess asks him if “there is anything else he may need, sir”. He makes a suave, James Bond-like response, about her appearance, her service. It makes her chuckle and look at him flirtily.
You can probably picture this scene quite easily. Because we’ve seen it so many times in movies, in advertisements, in our media. The constant objectification of female flight attendants has lead to their image being sexualised. So then, what we have actually been seeing, is the continued reinforcement of that image. To the point that this type of behaviour has become so normalised, that even sexually harassing a flight attendant has become the norm.
It has always been difficult to separate the grey line of sexual harassment in the service industry. The server is meant to be friendly, responsive and attentive to the customer. The customer is meant to always be right. The relationship is meant to have a power imbalance. But then what happens when that grey line is blurred?
This scenario is one that unfortunately happens too often in the airline industry. In fact, a recent study found that 68% of flight attendants have experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers. 35% had experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers and for another 18%, the abuse was actually physical. Yet, in line with other findings of workplace sexual harassment, only 7% of those experiencing it reported the passenger to their employer.
The problem might be grounded in the sexualisation and objectification of “stewardesses” (now called flight attendants after a normative change in the industry). Internally, employee relations within planes are still tinted with sex-segregated roles and promotional strategies focusing on the appeal, presence and image of the female flight attendant.
Even nowadays, about 80% of flight attendants are women. Since the beginning of commercial passenger flights, the industry has marketed the objectification of the "stewardess", making them “ready for your service”. The job, until 1993, was only available to young, single, polished women who were required to step on a weight scale to see if they could pass their application.
An industry that has therefore marketed and profited off of the sexualisation of the “stewardess” image can have trouble reversing that perception and representing flight attendants rather as imperative, integral parts of airline travel.
"Even today, we are called pet names, patted on the rear when a passenger wants our attention, cornered in the back galley and asked about our “hottest” layover, and subjected to incidents not fit for print”, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants
Yet, despite efforts by different airlines, unions and governments, the harassment that flight attendants face is still ongoing. Flight attendants have reported verbal sexual harassment, such as comments which are “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive, and dirty”.
They also described being subjected to passengers’ propositions, requests for sexual favours, and even pornographic videos and pictures. Physical sexual harassment often includes having their breasts, buttocks and crotches “touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed and fondled” both on top of and under their uniforms.
However, flight attendants are not always the targets of unsafe flight behaviour. In fact, 20% of in-flight employees have reported having to intervene in a passenger-on-passenger assault. One would think that the customer, their safety and their tranquility comes first on commercial airlines - especially those airlines that focus on marketing themselves as luxurious, comfortable and worth-your-money.
Yet, despite passengers taking legal action against airlines who fail to respond appropriately to these abuses and this harassment, not many airlines have created concrete preventative action against this type of behaviour. In fact, airlines contacted law enforcement in less than half of passenger-on-passenger incidents. And 68% of flight attendants have said that they have not noticed any employer efforts to address sexual harassment at work.
Nevertheless, some progress is being made - if slow and painful. In 2018 the U.S. Congress responded to these in-flight sexual harassment reports by assigning a task force to adress the issue. However, it has yet to be implemented.
Meanwhile, some airlines have taken it upon themselves to find proactive and preventative solutions to protect their employees and passengers. Alaska Airlines, for example, is leading the pack by already adding a line to its preflight script encouraging passengers to report unwelcome behaviour. Their message states that they
“Do not tolerate inappropriate verbal, digital or physical conduct of any kind, including sexual harassment, invasive photography and assault. Please report unwelcome behaviour to an employee immediately. Any crime committed on board is considered a federal offense”
This type of message is extremely effective and important, as it is not only preventative condoning this type of behaviour from passengers, but it is also proactive as it raises awareness of the problem itself. Flight Attendant Associations have already stated that making these types of public announcements can make a huge difference to passenger in-flight behaviour.
Yet, it is not enough. Service announcements from airline chief executives speaking up about these issues would add more force to the fight. Furthermore, more diversity in flight attendants, political action from governments and severe consequences for harassment would improve the situation even further. For example, creating bans from airlines for passengers whose behaviour is reported - this would be a forceful deterring factor.
However, until stronger steps are taken to remind passengers that sexual harassment is a crime on flights, flight attendants, the main targets, still carry most of the burden. Airlines should take the responsibility upon themselves to find ways of making not just passengers, but their employees, comfortable.
Written By: Paula Koller-Alonso