Sexual harassment onboard flights: Do airlines prioritise brand image over justice to crew, passengers?

Protocol and laws are a massive pain if one has the bad luck of being sexually harassed in a flight.

Sharanya Gopinathan June 22, 2017 15:52:33 IST
Sexual harassment onboard flights: Do airlines prioritise brand image over justice to crew, passengers?

On 17 June, a man named Ramesh Chand on board an IndiGo flight travelling from Hyderabad to Delhi was caught masturbating. A co-passenger sitting beside him complained to the crew, and the man was arrested upon landing in Delhi.

Sexual harassment onboard flights Do airlines prioritise brand image over justice to crew passengers

Scare in the air. Reuters

This isn’t the first time we’re hearing about sexual harassment on Indian planes: Back in 2006, Kerala public works minister PJ Joseph reportedly molested a woman on a Kingfisher flight. He then earned the distinction of becoming the third Kerala minister to quit after being involved in sexual harassment cases and was later acquitted in a district court.

In 2009, a passenger on an IndiGo flight was found staring at an air hostess and “masturbating mid-air”, as the Times of India liked to call it. In January 2017, a business-class passenger on an Air India flight groped a female passenger while she was asleep. In 2015, a video of a woman slapping a man who molested her on an IndiGo flight went viral. There are several more videos of similar cases uploaded on YouTube for no discernible reason, except perhaps to shame the men involved, or to satisfy the voyeuristic curiosity in videos of molestation that we’re now seeing in the age of smartphones and easy video recording.

An August 2016 article published in Slate tried to explore what happens in cases of sexual harassment on long-haul flights. It seemed to come to the conclusion that airlines are grossly ill-equipped to handle these instances, and the reasons seemed to boil down to three rough areas: a fear of ruining the airlines’ reputation, a fear of being sued if the allegations prove to be false, and a concern about how expensive it is to divert a plane to an unplanned landing during an international flight.

In India, there seems to be somewhat less confusion about the procedure.

Nazhadh Sheikh, an aviation trainer at the Frankfinn Institute of Air Hostess Training in Bangalore, says that there’s a fairly standard procedure for dealing with instances of harassment on planes. The flight attendant is required to restrain the passenger (“nothing like handcuffs or anything, just move them away from the victim to the last row and make sure they don’t trouble any other passengers”), and inform the pilot. If a male cabin crew member is on the flight, he’s usually made to sit next to the offender to make sure he doesn’t do anything more to anyone else. The pilot notifies airport security, who apprehends the accused immediately upon landing. A detailed report is filed to the in-flight centre, and appropriate action is taken by airport security, who can take the issue up with local police authorities.

Shylaja Gopal, who was a flight attendant for eight years with Jet Airways, agrees that this is the usual procedure that’s followed. But she also adds that airline staff are keen to de-escalate these kinds of situations as much as possible, as they can’t take action based only on one person’s complaint, and that the situation could reflect badly on the airlines if the accused ends up being found innocent.

Something about this protocol doesn’t sit right, does it? Maybe it’s that it feels like an unsatisfactory response that’s tailored to suit the status quo of how flights and cabin crews currently work and are staffed, not like a plan that’s been formulated to create targeted mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment and women’s safety specifically.

That being said, what more can you do when flying thousands of feet above the air with no official authorities on hand to intervene? I’m not sure. Would it be a good idea to have security guards or officials entrusted with the responsibility of making sure that flights are safe from criminal actions? Should cabin crew be taught that the reputation of the airline or the possibility of legal action against them is not greater or more important than the safety of women passengers?

Nafeesa Khan, a former flight attendant at Emirates, now a social activist and the Karnataka state president of the International Human Rights Observatory, thinks that this belief would go a long way in helping flight attendants deal with harassment against themselves. She worked as a flight attendant on Emirates for three years, and says that instances of sexual harassment against flight attendants (both male and female) are common on flights. “All these instances of molestation, groping, they happen so frequently. It’s the saddest moment. Every flight, we’d all go near the cockpit and discuss what happens amongst ourselves, but we’d never tell our managers in the company, out of fear that we’d lose our jobs.” She says that airlines are concerned about their brand names, and feel that customers may not want to fly on their airlines if such incidents get publicised. Noting that flight attendant jobs are not permanent, she says that a complaint from a passenger that attendants were rude or “did not satisfy their needs” could be enough for reason for the airline to sack the attendant, and is exactly why most attendants hesitate to react strongly or file a complaint. What do you do instead? “Just ignore.”

She believes that it would help flight attendants if there was a grievance cell or separate body across various airlines to deal with these complaints so that they didn’t have to be reported internally to the individual airline company itself. She says that airline companies are notorious for handling such complaints badly, recalling instances where she’s seen feedback boxes be emptied of negative complaints, or where flight attendants have been sacked after dealing harshly with “important, CEO-type passengers” who write strongly-worded letters to the airline company. Having an autonomous body or some other such mechanism would assuage flight attendants’ fears about reporting such cases.

It’s a good idea, and clearly, so is gender sensitivity training for managers and senior staff with regard to handling sexual harassment complaints.

Even reporting such cases to the police can get a bit sticky, especially when dealing with cases on international flights. What happens if an Indian man sexually harasses a Bangladeshi woman on a Qatar Airways flight from Malaysia to Thimpu? Well, it depends. It’s understood that the country in which the plane is registered has jurisdiction in these cases, and most countries’ (including India’s) law say that they have jurisdiction over crimes committed in their territory, or by their citizens. The victim can also choose to file a complaint in the country she lands in, or with the Consulate of her home country. That might be best, especially when flying on a plane owned by countries with twisted laws: remember the case of the Dutch woman who was imprisoned for 16 months in Qatar for “having sex outside marriage” after she reported that she had been raped?

So yes, protocol and laws are a massive pain if you have the bad luck of being sexually harassed in a flight. But why should we assume that this makes it something airlines don’t need to think about?

After all, the massive airline business is constantly being restructured to cater to ‘safety.’ Belts off. Shoes off. Show us that your laptops can come on. No laptops. So and so forth. Does any other business look like hospitality and feel like prison reform as much as airlines? Bound by ‘safety’ laws as they are, it would be great for them to expand the definition of safe flying to include women.

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online womens magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

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