Even with a Congressional mandate to fix this problem, DOT refused to study child assaults on planes
The FBI has noted the increase in child sexual assaults on planes, specifically citing issues of 8-year-old children being targeted. Plus, Congress passed a law specifically telling DOT to conduct a rulemaking about how to ensure that families could sit together. Unfortunately, the law has two small words in its language — “if necessary.”
To me and to congressmen and congresswomen, I believe that the “if necessary” was placed in the law to be used after a study of the issue and the completion of a rulemaking. DOT has refused to even consider child assault on planes a problem and is now in the first phases of setting up a general sexual assault committee to study the issue.
DOT has its head so far in the sand that it refuses to act to ensure that there are no child sexual assaults on planes. Families are faced with 3-year-olds being seated far from parents or guardians on planes. Young girls only 8 to 12 years old are forced to sit next to strangers with no nearby family members. In an age when those children walking through a neighborhood would be picked up by police and their parents charged with dereliction of parental duty, allowing airlines to separate young children and their families should also be considered criminal.
Some advocates have suggested that the airlines are even using computer algorithms to purposely separate parents and guardians from young children so that parents feel forced to purchase a seat reservation in order to protect their child.
Children between the ages of 3 and 13 years old are often seated rows away from their parents or family members for the convenience of the airlines, not for the protection of the families and children. Amidst an increase in child sexual assaults on planes the country does not need a committee to see if protection is necessary. It is a fact. Aviation consumers need protection and rules in place to protect against woman and child sexual assaults on planes.
In the case of children, the protection should protect against assaults well before they happen. For older women, there needs to be a clear set of procedures for how to handle sexual assaults on planes. The FBI has taken this issue seriously. So, should DOT.
The FBI is trying to raise awareness about this issue so people can protect themselves and report incidents immediately if they do occur. “There are all sorts of people in the air, just like on the ground,” FBI Special Agent David Gates, who is based at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and regularly investigates these cases said. “Flyers need to be aware of their surroundings and take a few simple precautions to stay safe.”
DOT does not have a choice. Congress has told DOT there is a problem and the FBI has told DOT there is a problem. DOT should take immediate action. DOT should help the FBI do their job and keep America’s families safe.
Since the passage of the Families Sitting Together law as part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2016, Travelers United has been almost the only organization meeting with DOT and attempting to get them to enforce the laws that Congress passed and the President signed.
“Unfortunately, people don’t think things like this happen on airplanes,” said Caryn Highley, a special agent in the FBI’s Seattle Division who investigates crimes aboard aircraft. “There is a perception on an airplane that you’re in a bubble of safety,” Highley said. But particularly on overnight flights, where people may consume alcohol or take sleeping pills, and a dark cabin and close-quarter seating can give the perception of privacy and intimacy, offenders are tempted by opportunity. Highley has seen victims as young as 8 years old.
The LA Times reported during the congressional deliberations over the FAA Reauthorization bill,:
Compared with most gathering places, an airborne aircraft is one of the few settings in which the public has no direct access to police or security personnel. In a bar, office building or concert hall, security guards often handle problems until police can respond.
But an airplane is different. If an assault occurs, it could be hours before the plane lands. Meanwhile, there’s no brig. There are no onboard security officers trained to subdue a suspect. (As for air marshals, of the 7,000 or so flights I’ve worked as a flight attendant in the last three decades, fewer than 20 flights took off with air marshals onboard.) … [T]here’s no blueprint on how to handle claims of in-flight sexual assault.
At 30,000 feet, the best protection is for crew members to move an accuser as far from a suspect as possible. Ask her to write a detailed account of what transpired. Gather witness statements. Implore the captain to radio ahead so authorities can meet the aircraft.
So, while the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, and the FBI all acknowledge that there is a problem of predatory behavior on planes, the DOT in its infinite wisdom does not agree. The rulemaking should proceed. After hearing from more experts DOT can make their minds up. However, in this case, DOT is not the lawmaker. It is their job to do the will of Congress and closely examine the needs of families while traveling. The already-passed “families sitting together” portion of the law will do just that.
It is time that allowing airlines to separate toddlers and pre-teens from their guardians or parents should end. DOT should follow the will of Congress and the President and take action — now.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.