After decades of harassment, flight attendants fight back

It has been 17 years since Liza Sanchez got her first real taste of the pervasive sexual harassment that for decades has been accepted on airplanes.

The flight attendant was in her early 20s, just starting out, when she pushed the drink cart up to row two on a Spirit Airlines flight.

The man in the aisle seat was tall with brown hair and striking blue eyes. As she bent down to take his drink order, his gaze lingered on her chest.

"Wow," he told her, eying her breasts. "I bet your boyfriend must love to lay on those pillows."

She knew, from speaking to the older flight attendants, to expect this kind of behaviour and brush it off, Sanchez said in an interview. But dealing with it first-hand?

"I just didn't expect it, I wasn't prepared for it. Now, I'm prepared for it," she said. "I've been spoken to like this almost my entire life."

After 18 years as a flight attendant, the frequency of the harassment hasn't changed, Sanchez said. She has, though, become more confident in calling out harassers when they say something inappropriate or reach out to grab her. And, propelled by the growing surge of opposition against harassment sparked by the #MeToo movement, Sanchez and her colleagues have also seen another major change: They can now more openly denounce - rather than accept - the harassment they face in the air.

According to a recent survey by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), nearly 70 per cent of flight attendants in the US have experienced sexual harassment in their careers.

That number dwarfs the figures in other studies, indicating instances of sexual harassment are more pervasive for flight attendants. According to a recent national study commissioned by non-profit Stop Street Harassment, 38 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men surveyed experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.


The flight-attendant study surveyed more than 3500 flight attendants from 29 US airlines, including some based in South Florida. About 80 per cent of respondents were female, but the study didn't distinguish between the kind of harassment each gender faced.

Of the flight attendants who experienced sexual harassment in the past year, 35 per cent said it was verbal, the survey found. The attendants reported that they were subjected to passengers' explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, requests for sexual "favours," and pornographic videos and pictures, the survey found.

In the past year, 18 per cent of the flight attendants surveyed said the abuse also turned physical, with passengers touching their breasts, buttocks, and crotch areas, and attendants reporting being "touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed, and fondled" both on top of and under their uniforms.

Flight attendants said passengers sometimes cornered or lunged at them to hug, kiss, or hump them. (The word "hump" was used in the survey.)

Sara Nelson, the union's president, said the flight-attendant profession has long been highly sexualised. Until 1993, attendants had to get on a scale to stay within each airline's preferred parameters. In the 1970s, a campaign by National Airlines featured attendants saying their names and then suggestively inviting passengers to "fly" them. Before 1968, flight attendants were forced to leave their jobs if they got married.

The profession has its roots in an environment where the airlines were "fairly overt about the fact that they were trying to entertain mostly male business travellers with young, attractive flight attendants," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly.

The sexism, even in the #MeToo era, is still prevalent. Virgin Atlantic uses attractive models to promote new routes and its flight attendants have been rated "hottest" among the airlines. Last year, the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar al-Baker, said American passengers are "always being served by grandmothers" on US flights, while boasting that the average age of Qatar's flight attendants is "only 26". He later apologised for what he called "careless" remarks.

"The biggest challenge is the decades-long culture that has existed in the industry," Nelson said. " ... It could be really dismissing and undermining of our authority by calling us pet names and being at best dismissive, at worst, really condescending, rude, and abusive."

Seeking recourse for sexual harassment is also difficult, Nelson said.

Of the flight attendants surveyed by the AFA, only 7 per cent said they reported the abuse to their employer.

Sanchez, who lives in Cocoa Beach and still flies for Spirit, said it's tough to decide when to speak out - or even how. Airlines are under pressure to get flights out on time, so flight attendants have to weigh whether stopping a flight because of inappropriate behaviour is worth the hassle. What if a passenger is filming the exchange but only catches the flight attendant's retort and not the abuse? That could create more complications if the video is posted online. Even at a base level, reporting sexual abuse could be embarrassing and lead to public shaming.

"When I would talk to my coworkers, they were like, 'What are you going to tell your boss? What do you expect them to do?' " Sanchez said. "There was no training, there was no recourse. I can't even tell you today (that) if someone wants to speak to me like that, I would put them in their place, but am I going to remove them from the plane?"

Spirit, Alaska Airlines, and United Airlines have started working with the union to end the harassment. But the implementation of new procedures is still in the early stages.

"The more we talk about it and make it a subject that is not taboo, the safer everyone is going to be the more we are going to get traction to do something about it," Nelson said.


In a May letter following the release of AFA's survey, Spirit Airlines CEO Bob Fornaro said the airline would not tolerate "any form of harassment, including sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, or any other demeaning or offensive conduct".

Fornaro said that in the past few years, Spirit has worked to supplement its initial and recurrent crew training with modules on anti-harassment policies, anti-bias training, conflict de-escalation, and training to spot and prevent human trafficking. He encouraged employees to reach out to their managers, HR managers, or Spirit's confidential Ethics and Compliance Hotline if they encounter sexual harassment in the workplace.

"If a guest behaves inappropriately, if necessary we will involve, and cooperate fully with, law enforcement, and we may deny boarding on a flight or ban an individual from future service on Spirit," Fornaro wrote.

United and Alaska put out similar letters. United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote a letter in December supporting the "long overdue national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace".

Munoz said United is looking at both a change in policies and in the mindset that has allowed harassment to continue.

"There is no place for sexual harassment at United, and I am asking that you all join with me in making a commitment to zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any of our colleagues and customers," he wrote.

And at Alaska, CEO Brad Tilden outlined steps that the airline has started to take. Those include new training that includes a sexual-assault scenario, the company hosting conversations about preventing and addressing sexual harassment, and training for all employees on preventing sexual harassment.

Onboard, Tilden said Alaska is adding "resources to clarify how guests can support one another and our crew".

"I've asked each of our leaders to ensure that proper policies and procedures, proper training, and proper awareness exists to respond promptly and thoughtfully to incidents, and to report quickly, if incidents of harassment or assault do occur," Tilden wrote in April.

A bipartisan letter written by Florida Demoract Rep. Lois Frankel, Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, and other representatives in late May called on leaders from 30 airlines to institute sexual-harassment policies.

That push is underway after the US Senate sent a mandate to the Department of Transportation in March asking it to establish a sexual-harassment task force. It's also requiring that DOT develop guidelines by spring 2019, based on best practices, for airlines to respond and address incidents of sexual harassment.

Other legislation is in the works, Nelson said.

Ultimately, Nelson said the union is looking at implementing a proportional response to instances of harassment, as well as clear policies. Other, more creative, solutions include adding signage in airports or announcements discouraging inappropriate behaviour. Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said the airport hasn't received any requests for signage or messaging, but that it would support whatever direction the airlines take.

"The worst offenders are starting to be held responsible, and that was simply (non-existent) even a year ago," Nelson said. "There has been a real desire to want to help because when you define a problem ... it's a lot easier to talk about it and it's also a lot more clear about what needs to be done."


See also: The secret room on planes where flight attendants take breaks

See also: 11 things I never knew about flying, until I became a flight attendant