The problem has become so extreme that, in the United States, the Department of Transport has set up a National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force to review and evalu-ate current practices, protocols, and requirements of U.S. airlines in responding to and re-porting allegations by passengers of sexual misconduct on board commercial aircraft. Media reports would indicate that this is actually a global challenge. Consensual sexual activity is one thing but many of the incidents are nothing less than assault. Alexia Lequien discuss-es sexual behaviours and their consequences and looks at ways to improve crewmembers’ training and the aircraft layout to minimise occurrences.
Airports and aircraft are fantastic places to witness people disregarding social and behavioural norms. During the boarding process, passengers manoeuvre themselves en masse, often with considerable urgency, to be first onboard. The result, a gain of perhaps of few extra seconds at the expense of politeness. Similarly, after landing and during the taxi to the gate, you might witness people unfastening their seatbelts whilst the seatbelt sign is still on and trying to get to the main door to disembark before anyone else without concern about knocking a fellow traveller with their hand baggage. These incidents happen daily and, whilst some might irritate or amuse your crewmembers, others lead to the involvement of security personnel and prosecutions.
Incidents of selfish behaviour frequently include those which may be described as being sexually deviant in nature and, with passenger numbers increasing, crewmembers are having to manage these behaviours inflight ever more frequently. Some incidents are the result of excessive alcohol consumption or the abuse of drugs, either inflight or at airports prior to boarding, while others are a consequence of mental illness. Whatever the cause, the psychological state is one in which individuals feel that they are ‘out of the world’, and somehow not bound by its laws and accepted normal behaviours, which is what French ethnographer and anthropologist, Marc Augé, would describe as ‘non-space’.
Non-space is defined as an environment which is not a typical meeting space and is unconducive to building common references for group behaviour. People do not live in non-spaces; they are places where individuals are anonymous and alone, such as shopping malls, motorways and, in this case, aircraft.
With the rise of social media, it has become easy for passengers to share whatever they see, wherever they are. In the past few years, many videos of people having sexual encounters have been circulated on the internet; sex on seats, sex in toilets, nothing is stopping those seeking satisfaction from pursuing their membership of the ‘mile-high club’.
On 13 March 2018, on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London Gatwick to Cancun, Mexico, two passengers who had only just met were caught by a flight attendant having sex in the aircraft toilets. In this instance, it was a case of two consenting adults, but it is not always so. In 2014, on a Japan Airlines flight from Honolulu, USA, to Kansai, Japan, a man attempted to rape a fellow passenger by entering the toilets as she got in. Thankfully, with the strength of the crewmembers and the design of the toilet doors – which can be opened and even removed from the outside – the man, who was found with his trousers down, was detained. The flight was forced to return to where it came from and the man was prosecuted.
Both male and female crewmembers regularly experience acts of ‘toucherism’ inflight as they walk down the aisles or whilst in the galley, usually as an inappropriate ‘joke’. Yet sometimes the act is clearly more invasive in nature, so as with upskirt photography. Furthermore, with so many passengers to look after at once, some passengers may feel like they are not getting the attention they deserve and decide to poke crewmembers in a provocative manner to gain their attention. It is often a misunderstanding and the result of cultural differences, as some countries are more tactile than others. This can also occur between globally diverse passengers, driven by the closeness of seats and the availability of more comforts such as blankets, headphones and carry-on baggage which, in-effect, increasingly reduce the personal space of every passenger. Nevertheless, any touch, intentional or not, has the potential to be perceived as offensive or aggressive and, in the era of ‘me-too’, even the most honest touch can have severe consequences.
These consequences differ depending on the airline as there are no global aviation laws specifically covering the management of sexual acts onboard an aircraft. Therefore, the laws regulating acts occurring onboard an aircraft, either inflight or whilst still on the ground, are either those of the country of the aircraft’s registration or of the airspace it is operating in. The law of the country an aircraft is flying to or from, or the nationality of the passenger in question, does not yet govern the ruling or the sentencing, except in the case of a few states which have introduced their own legislation to ensure that they are able to prosecute alleged offenders when an aircraft lands. This often results in confusion for concerned travellers, victims and even the unruly passengers themselves.
If two consenting adults decide to join the ‘mile-high club’ in an aircraft registered in the United Arab Emirates, they have a very high chance of being jailed. Whereas, if the same two attempted the act in an aircraft registered in the United Kingdom, their punishment would depend on their aircrew’s judgement as to whether the situation should be escalated and, even if reported, the chances are that they will not be jailed even as a result of having sex in a public place and would probably only receive a fine. This is exactly what happened to the daring passengers caught on the Virgin Atlantic flight; after being separated from each other, the gentleman disembarked in Mexico without a penalty but the lady was arrested due to her subsequent violent behaviour towards her travelling companion.
“…the psychological state is one in which individuals feel that they are ‘out of the world’, which is what French ethnographer and anthropologist, Marc Augé, would describe as
It could be argued that the ‘norms’ of behaviour are changing because passengers simply want to be as adventurous inflight as many celebrities seem to be doing. For example, Kris Jenner, an influential American TV personality, has publicly discussed receiving a bottle of champagne from the crew after being caught in the toilets with her ex-husband. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and Virgin Atlantic, openly talks about the day he joined the ‘mile-high club’ with a stranger inflight and how great an experience it was. These testimonies, and the rise of the ‘bucket list’ phenomenon, are likely to encourage passengers in search of an adrenaline rush to adopt the same risk-taking behaviours mid-air without thinking of the consequences and their assumptions may be that these acts do not harm anyone.
To protect passengers from these disconcerting inflight behaviours, crewmembers need a better understanding of the passengers they fly daily, on a route-by-route basis. Some routes are more prone to problems than others. The ‘party routes’, as they are known by crewmembers, are to-and-from destinations such as Las Vegas, Ibiza, Split, Cancun, and Bangkok. In every briefing, and especially for these flights, senior crewmembers ensure they brief the rest of the crew on the profile of the passengers boarding. This is a useful mechanism for facilitating a conversation about potential deviant behaviour and encourages crewmembers to share their experiences which could, in turn, offer beneficial learning points for all crewmembers. This is especially valuable for more junior or inexperienced crewmembers in the briefing room. It is important that the flight deck crew also take part in the briefing, sharing their knowledge and extending their leadership and support to the rest of the crew. These moments foster the rapid team building that is needed to make sure everyone supports each other in the event of an incident.
The passengers’ profile should be discussed from the perspective of expected, albeit generalised, cultural differences. For instance, in some countries, it is culturally acceptable to whistle or be very familiar with the people serving you. In these cultural predispositions, passengers may become very tactile and can touch areas that crewmembers might find disrespectful and offensive. Crewmembers are chosen by airlines for many reasons and based on several requirements, including their cultural awareness and acceptance of diverse values. The aim of this is to minimise confusion and the emotionally charged escalation of incidents which may occur due to cultural misunderstandings. In this sense, incident management in the non-space environment is a two-way street in which crewmembers set the behavioural norms on each route or flight, applying pragmatic flexibility to the rules to protect themselves and the passengers they are serving. Passengers should respond to these rules and adapt their behaviours according to the crewmembers.
With an increase in the number of low-cost airlines, more people are travelling by air than ever and, with the evolution of air travel, aircrew training needs to evolve too. Some passengers may not travel often, meaning that when they do, they feel disorientated which leads to the feeling of being in a ‘non-space’ environment. They, perhaps, don’t know how to behave in these environments, starting from the moment they enter an airport. These individuals should be identified at the earliest opportunity so that their potentially deviant and dangerous behaviour can be managed by airport staff and crewmembers. Trained behavioural analysts who can profile passengers at the airport could more easily notice potential threats and inform crewmembers who can then develop a management plan. This happens in Tel Aviv, Israel, which is highly rated in terms of security and, given its success, experts argue that behavioural analysis should be routinely utilised to detect potentially unruly passengers as well as potential terrorists. These passengers may be consuming excessive alcohol, showing signs of panic, speaking loudly, or, perhaps, just look lost as they search for their seat. Crewmembers should learn how to recognise those who are in a ‘non-space’ as passengers arrive on board, if, that is, they have not already been identified by the ground crew.
In their initial training, aircrew should be given some basic behavioural analysis training in order to give them a better understanding of passenger types, baseline behaviours for certain routes, and deviations from the baseline which are a cause for concern. This training would also be beneficial for several types of situation on board an aircraft, such as the identification of victims of human trafficking, potential terrorists and perpetrators of other criminal acts, including inflight theft. This type of training should also help the development of protocols for preventing and reacting to, rather than just identifying, these behaviours. If crewmembers recognise a person who seems to be in a ‘non-space’ state, a human, interpersonal approach might bring them the reassurance needed to bring them back to a more acceptable state. These initial exchanges with higher risk passengers also allow crewmembers to monitor these people more carefully.
Training should provide crewmembers with the skills to help them deal with passengers who behave in a sexually deviant manner. The airline industry needs to adopt a consistent standard so that the non-space factors are universally reduced and group norms on aircraft are constantly reinforced; this way, in the long term, these behaviours can be reduced. The same consistency is needed with respect to international laws, reducing the ambiguity for passengers about what is acceptable and legal, and what is not.
As general guidance for crewmembers who find passengers misbehaving, the first action is to separate the two parties. Then, depending on the seriousness of the situation and whether a sexual encounter is consensual or not, an appropriate mix of either reassurance to a victim and/or an assertive tone to the provocateurs or perpetrators is needed. Crewmembers should always calmly try to understand the two sides of the story, actively listening so that they can record all the key information to be handed over to relevant authorities. When possible, crewmembers should never be alone when talking to passengers in such circumstances and witness statements should be collected whenever possible. Crewmembers should never withhold any information when handing over an incident to the authorities, providing everything they know without making accusations that could affect the investigation; this may itself be a legal offence, classified as ‘perverting the course of justice’.
Crewmembers should see their role as aiding in the reduction of the number of ‘non-space’ related incidents, such as sexual assaults, inflight. To accomplish this aim, more crew may be needed to manage passengers. Additionally, aircraft manufacturers can consider these crewmember and passenger concerns in their designs; as mentioned earlier, the fact that the lavatory door can be opened and removed from the outside might have saved a woman from being raped and similar innovations should be integrated into existing designs. From a crewmember’s perspective, there is much more than could be done. For example, smaller cabins, separated by bulkheads, provide a means of containing passengers in a defined area, which helps discourage passengers from misbehaving; this also helps crewmembers to spot those passengers who enter the lavatory together.
“…lavatories that are integrated near to the galleys may reduce the likelihood of passengers attempting sexual acts inflight…”
The lavatory of choice for these deviant passengers tends to be that which is furthest from the galleys and therefore furthest from crewmembers’ quarters in-between services. Having lavatories in the middle of the cabin, far away from the galley is ideal for thrill-seeking passengers. Indeed, during the dark hours of the flights when most people are asleep it is very easy to sneak in without crewmembers or other passengers noticing. Lavatories that are integrated near to the galleys may reduce the likelihood of passengers attempting sexual acts inflight and increase the likelihood of them being detected. The even more audacious passengers wanting to try their luck directly in their seats are often seen with the armrest up for easy access to the person sat next to them. Immoveable armrests could help reduce not only adventurous passengers but the potential for sexual assaults. Whilst this may not seem practical, fixed armrests already exists on bulkhead seats. Of course, the downside is that fixed armrests prevent passengers from stretching out during flights with low passenger loads and also prevent family and friends from cuddling up in a non-sexual fashion – a child resting its head on a parent’s lap or a couple sleeping in each other’s arms.
With more aircraft being equipped with WIFI, we are also seeing an increase in passengers pleasuring themselves alone. A simple fix for this is to block certain websites available through the ‘on-air’ WIFI. This should be expanded to devices that use VPNs to circumnavigate any restriction. These modifications should be integrated into airline cybersecurity plans. Of course, should passengers decided to view previously downloaded porn, there is little the crew can do other than to respectfully intervene if anybody else onboard notices.
Of course, for any passengers or crewmembers who simply have to join the mile-high club, the safest place for this is Denver – the Mile-High City!
The non-space state is a psychological state which some passengers enter transiently when on an aircraft or in an airport. Anyone could, at any time, and in any aircraft environment, enter this state. The goal of updated training is not to stop the non-space state, but to learn how to manage people within it; non-space states are unlikely to be eliminated completely. Crewmembers and ground crew at the airport need to be able to recognise these individuals, help manage this state, and mitigate any inappropriate behaviour that could, consequently, happen inflight. A protocol for non-space risk factor identification and management is needed and should be introduced internationally. It is imperative that passengers know their rights and even more what laws apply on board an aircraft. Consistent global crewmember standards should be in place to support this understanding for both passengers and crewmembers.
Alexia Lequien is a former senior crewmember for both British Airways and Emirates airlines and an aircrew trainer. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org