Several prominent airlines have made headlines in all the wrong ways in the past year, for mishaps such as forcibly pulling passengers off overbooked flights and negligently hurting passenger’s pets. When it comes to plane safety, however, a new concern is making passengers worry: in-flight sexual assault. There has been what the FBI is calling an “alarming” increase in in-flight sexual assaults committed by passengers in the last three years. Here’s what you need to know about this frightening new crime trend, how to protect yourself while flying, and how airlines can be held accountable.

In-Flight Sexual Assaults Have Risen 66% from 2014 to 2017

David Rodski, an FBI special agent, said that although in-flight passenger-to-passenger sexual assaults are still rare, they have been increasing year by year at an alarming rate. From 2014 to 2017, the rate increased by 66% (from 38 sexual assaults to 63). Federal crime data shows these reports coming from airports all over the country, mainly during long, overnight flights. In 2016, the FBI investigated 57 counts of alleged sexual assaults on planes. This was an increase from 40 counts in 2015.

The FBI did not offer any suggestions as to what might be causing this increase, or whether the statistical increase actually reflects an increase in awareness and reporting of in-flight sexual assault, and not the crime itself. All the FBI data shows is that reports of passenger-on-passenger sexual assault crimes have increased significantly in the last few years. One of the most recent in-flight sexual assault claims to hit the news involves a female teenage victim – one who says she and her mother knew nothing about in-flight sexual assault and had no idea it happened so often.

In this case, the 16-year-old victim was taking a red-eye United Airlines flight from Seattle, Washington to Newark, New Jersey by herself. She fell asleep on the flight and woke up to a passenger (later arrested and identified as Dr. Vijaykumar Krishnappa) sitting next to her and touching her thighs. According to the victim, who wishes to remain unidentified, the man rubbed between her legs and tried to put his other hand in her pants. She reported the incident to a flight attendant, who moved the victim to another seat.

When the plane landed, the assailant walked off, with no police or security officers waiting to make an arrest. When a United supervisor finally answered the victim’s mother’s calls, she said she knew nothing of the assault. The United crew was negligent: no one had written a report or taken the perpetrator into custody. Later the same day, the FBI tracked down and arrested Krishnappa, charging him with abusive sexual contact on a plane. If convicted, Krishnappa could face $250,000 in fines and/or two years in prison, as well as possible deportation.

How to Protect Yourself from Assault on a Plane

The first step in protecting yourself from sexual assault on a plane is to be aware of the problem. Practice situational awareness when flying. Recognize assault as a potential crime and take steps to try to protect yourself. If you’re traveling alone, for example, ask a flight attendant to make sure a stranger does not sit next to you while you’re asleep. Leave your overhead light on if you can, or illuminate your seat using a cell phone flashlight. Avoid drinking alcohol on the flight to keep your wits about you. If possible, consider avoiding overnight flights.

What to Do if You’ve Been a Victim

If you do experience sexual assault while in-flight, speak up immediately. Report the incident to a flight attendant and request a written report or other immediate action. If the flight attendant does not have the training to handle such a complaint, ask the captain to report to an on-ground supervisor. The airline should involve the police for you, since you cannot call 911 from the plane. Ask to move away from the perpetrator, if the flight attendant does not do so automatically.

As soon as you land, contact a vacation accident attorney for a consultation about what to do next. While sex crimes are often handled in criminal court, they may also be pursued in civil courts if negligence contributed to the assault.

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