Lawmakers to airlines: Take action on sexual harassment

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling on the leaders of 30 airlines to take action on sexual harassment and assault in the airline industry, saying the problem has been tolerated for too long.

“Flight attendants are first responders to medical emergencies, in-flight fires, or evacuations as well as the last line of defense against hijacking,” the lawmakers write according to a copy of the letter obtained by CNN. “They deserve our respect and gratitude, and to be treated fairly.”

The letter, spearheaded by Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida and Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, is the latest move to pressure airlines to address sexual harassment and assault in the air, both targeting flight attendants and passengers. CNN reported in December on the increased FBI investigations into in-air sexual assault or harassment, and the lack of training flight attendants receive.

“We are continuing our efforts at creating a culture of zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace and the best practices for ensuring that,” said Comstock.

Asked why the group opted to send a letter rather than pass legislation to force the industry to address sexual harassment, Frankel said: “In my opinion it will be quicker for industry leaders to step up and fix the problem rather than waiting for Congress.”

CNN’s December reporting on sexual harassment and assault on airlines focused on the experiences of passengers on commercial flights who said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault.

It is difficult to tell just how frequently these assaults happen because no federal regulatory agency tracks that data nationwide. However, FBI investigations into in-flight sexual assaults increased by 66% from fiscal year 2014 to 2017, CNN reported.

A recent survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants found that 68% said they experienced sexual harassment themselves. An equal share said they have not noticed any efforts by their employers over the past year to address sexual harassment on the job.

Sara Nelson, a United Airlines flight attendant who is president of the union, spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing on harassment in the service industry in March and said that flight attendants, who are overwhelmingly women, are “ongoing victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

“In December 2017, after the launch of the MeToo Movement, I publicly called on the airline chief executives to clearly and forcefully denounce the past objectification of flight attendants, reinforce our safety role as aviation’s first responders and pledge zero tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the airlines,” Nelson told members of the bipartisan caucus. “It is absurd to think that a group of people frequently harassed for decades can effectively become enforcers during emergencies without this level of clarity about the respect we deserve.”