SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Imagine sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet when suddenly the passenger next to you starts groping you. It's a scary situation that appears to be happening more often. Now a growing chorus of critics says the airline industry needs to do a better job trying to stop in-flight sexual assaults and handle them when they happen.
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Passenger Allison Dvaladze says it happened to her. About three hours into a Delta flight as she was falling asleep, Dvaladze says she felt a hand in her crotch.
"I immediately hit him and started to try to get out of the seat. He grabbed me again. I hit him again, and the third time, he hit me as I was trying to get away," Dvaladze said.
She says she had a panic attack and ran down the aisle to the flight attendants. She says the flight attendants seemed to want to help but were not sure what to do. "They asked me what I wanted them to do, but in that moment, I was not thinking clearly."
Dvaladze says the crew eventually moved her to another seat, but tried to get her to move back to her original seat, next to her attacker, for landing. She refused. According to Dvaladze the airline did not call law enforcement and the man just walked away.
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Dvaladze is now suing Delta Air Lines. She says is frustrated because Delta did not appear to take the situation seriously and has not agreed to implement new policies to improve flight crews' response to claims of sexual assault.
Delta would not comment on the specifics of the incident or the lawsuit, but sent an email to ABC7 news saying in part: "We continue to be disheartened by the original event Ms. Dvaladze described. We take all accounts of sexual assault very seriously and conduct routine reviews of our processes to ensure the safety and security of our customers remains a top priority."
Ayanna Hart was on a different Delta flight when she says she was groped by a man who was drunk. Hart says she complained to a flight attendant but was told "Oh don't worry about him. He flies with us all the time, he's Delta Platinum."
Hart sued Delta and Skywest Airlines, claiming the crew "failed to prevent continued groping" and kept serving a "belligerently drunk passenger."
A judge ruled Delta is not responsible because SkyWest actually operated the flight for Delta, but the case against Skywest is moving forward. Neither airline would comment.
In recent months other airlines have also faced accusations they failed to respond appropriately to reports of in-flight sexual assault and sexual harassment. ABC7 News tried to find out how often these incidents happen, but no one seems to know for sure.
The three major Bay Area airports told us they do not track in-flight sexual assault or harassment. None of the 6 largest airlines would provide statistics or agree to interviews on this topic, but they all sent statements about their policies and training covering sexual harassment and assault.
The FBI has jurisdiction over in-flight sexual assault. The number of investigations is up 65 percent in the past four years, from 38 investigations in 2014 to 63 in 2017, but many cases are not investigated because they are not reported.
Special Agent Carlos Ramirez works out of the FBI office at San Francisco International Airport . "I would definitely encourage any flight crew that knows of a crime that happened on board to notify law enforcement," Ramirez said.
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The Association of Flight Attendants says crews are in a tough spot. In a union survey last year, 20percent of flight attendants who responded said they had witnessed or taken a report of passenger sexual assault. Eighty-six percent said they had no knowledge or were "uncertain" of airline policies on how to respond.
Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants president, says crowded planes add to the problem and she believes in-flight sexual assault is happening more often.
Nelson says when passengers are close the together it allows perpetrators to have what she calls an oops factor. "Oops, didn't mean to touch your breast. Oops didn't mean to put my hand on your leg."
Allison Dvaladze's experience turned her into a crusader on the issue of sexual assault on airplanes. She reached out to other stakeholders, started a Facebook page with information, and got the attention of U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington.
As a result, Murray introduced a bill known as the Stopping Assault While Flying Enforcement Act.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein is cosponsor.
The bill would require airlines establish training for flight attendants and pilots on sexual assault and harassment. A task force would review airline practices and protocols to create minimum standards and best practices. The measure would also require the Department of Transportation to collect data from airlines on the incidence of sexual assault and harassment on airplanes
But even without a new law, Nelson says there is something you can do now. "We need to call on all the traveling public to say this is not ok, to use their eyes and ears to look out for it and to also respond to flight attendants and be willing to step up and help us move passengers around so anyone who may experience this can be in a safe place."
If you are the victim of sexual assault on an airplane and the airline does not call law enforcement, the FBI says to call 9-1-1 "before" you leave the airport.
Airlines released statements regarding their sexual harassment policies and allegations made:
Airlines For America: "Our members take these matters seriously and do not tolerate harassment in any form. Employees receive extensive customer service training to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our passengers and crew. Carriers also have well-defined processes and procedures in place for crewmembers to report observed and/or reported criminal activity that occurs on board the aircraft to the FAA and appropriate law enforcement authorities, who are responsible for recording such incidents and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of offenders. Like all Americans, our industry is doing a thorough assessment of all options to improve in this area, including internal policies and training."
American Airlines: "In recent weeks American has strengthened our commitment to diversity and inclusion at our airline to ensure all customers feel welcome, and all team members feel respected at work. As energized as we are by the actions we are undertaking, there is more work to do to as evidenced by the national conversation taking place around sexual harassment. We are not turning a blind eye. "We recognize harassment exists and we are acting to support our team members, including providing enhanced training. In addition, we will make it easier for our team members to report - and ultimately address - concerns. If team members see something or experience unwelcome advances, they deserve the best internal oversight and resolution processes we can offer." "Our flight attendants take the concerns of our passengers very seriously and work to address any issues that are brought to their attention. This may include separating and moving passengers, if necessary and coordinating with the flight deck to have law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival."
Alaska Airlines: "Our members take these matters seriously and do not tolerate harassment in any form. Employees receive extensive customer service training to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our passengers and crew. Carriers also have well-defined processes and procedures in place for crewmembers to report observed and/or reported criminal activity that occurs on board the aircraft to the FAA and appropriate law enforcement authorities, who are responsible for recording such incidents and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of offenders. Like all Americans, our industry is doing a thorough assessment of all options to improve in this area, including internal policies and training."
Delta Airlines: "We continue to be disheartened by the original event Ms. Dvaladze's described. We take all accounts of sexual assault very seriously and conduct routine reviews of our processes to ensure the safety and security of our customers remains a top priority."
When we become aware of incidents onboard, we investigate and reach out to local law enforcement either independently or when requested by the customer.
Examples of situations crew members are trained to handle.
Harassment (sexual, verbal and written)
Failing to follow crew instructions
JetBlue Airways: As per our policy, we do not comment on the details of customer investigations. When customers take issue with how their situation was handled, we appreciate feedback that will allow us the opportunity to improve our customer care handling.
"The safety and security of our customers is our top priority and we take reports of unwanted touching or sexual assault very seriously. While these incidents are rare, our crewmembers are instructed to follow specific procedures which can include reassigning seats, increasing cabin walkthroughs and/or notifying law enforcement. We regularly evaluate our procedures to incorporate best practices for handling these matters."
Southwest: The consideration of Safety is at the forefront of everything at Southwest. As part of an operating philosophy centered upon safety, our Flight Attendants and Pilots are trained to address a wide range of sensitive Customer issues onboard. After becoming aware of a potentially harmful situation-whether first-hand or reported-our Flight Attendants are obligated to notify our Pilots, who may then request the assistance of law enforcement, as appropriate. In cases where law enforcement becomes involved, our full cooperation would aim to protect our Customers and Crews.
We do not archive or report on the specific data you've requested.
Southwest prohibits harassment of any kind (sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation) and strictly prohibits any harassment on a basis of race, color, ancestry, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, gender identity, pregnancy, marital status, national origin, physical or mental disability, military and veteran status, genetic information, medical condition, or any other legally protected status. Per Southwest's policies, Employees who believe they have been subjected to workplace harassment or become aware of harassment based on these protected categories are to immediately report these matters and Southwest will conduct an objective, prompt, and confidential investigation. Southwest wants Employees to feel empowered to come forward in these situations without fear of retaliation.
This particular issue transcends policy. How we treat each other aligns with core Southwest values of civility and respect, curating an accepting workplace environment for all Employees.
United Airlines: Sexual harassment has absolutely no place anywhere in our society - including on our aircraft. We encourage our customers to always report incidents of sexual harassment to our onboard crewmembers, who are trained to address these situations immediately, including calling for law enforcement to meet the aircraft upon arrival.
Additionally, we expect our employees to treat each other with dignity and respect and we are committed to providing an environment that is free from offensive behavior of any kind. All United employees receive training on our harassment and discrimination policies and are specifically educated on several channels in which to raise complaints, including a helpline which is available 24 hours a day where employees can raise their concerns anonymously. Our policy explicitly states that retaliation will not be tolerated. If concerns of retaliation are raised, those too will be investigated and addressed. However, we cannot address offensive or harassing conduct that is not brought to the attention of management. We strive to ensure that our process to raise complaints and concerns is straightforward and not burdensome, and we'll continue to work with all of our employees to ensure that everyone feels empowered to report issues when they occur.
Passengers, flight attendants demand airlines get tougher on sexual assault