Nearly 70 percent of flight attendants have been sexually harassed at some point during their careers, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) found in a survey released Thursday, but only 7 percent have reported the abuse to their employer.
“That really emphasizes the problem here, that flight attendants don’t believe that they have backing that anyone will take this seriously,” AFA President Sara Nelson said. “I’m not surprised at all by the results. I think that this confirms what we knew anecdotally was going on.”
The first-of-its-kind survey by the flight attendants’ union also found that 18 percent of flight attendants experienced “physical sexual harassment” from passengers in the past year, such as being groped or enduring unwanted kisses or humping. (For the record, the Justice Department defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by federal, tribal, or state law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”)
About a third of flight attendants also endured verbal sexual harassment, like lewd comments, sometime in the past year.
AFA also discovered that almost 7 percent of survey respondents weren’t sure whether they’d been sexually harassed, a finding Nelson called “disturbing.”
The survey polled more than 3,500 flight attendants working in 29 U.S. airlines. About 80 percent of the respondents were women and 20 percent were men, a split AFA said is representative of the field as a whole.
“The industry had forever objectified flight attendants and used flight attendants as the focus of their ads that used sex to sell tickets. And they have never disavowed that,” Nelson pointed out. Sixty-eight percent of surveyed flight attendants say they have yet to notice their employers make any effort to address workplace sexual harassment since the #MeToo movement began last fall.
During Nelson’s first week on the job as a flight attendant, 23 years ago, Nelson said she met a woman who’d started working as a flight attendant back in the 1950s.
“She said, ‘You need to know something: Management thinks of us as either their wives or their mistress,’” Nelson recalled. “‘In either case, they hold us in contempt. And the only place that you will find worth is with your fellow flying partners.’ So flight attendants figured out how to take care of themselves.”
It’s a sentiment that Nelson still hears from flight attendants today, whether they’ve been flying for months or years. “The first time that I really came to terms with the fact that that how I felt about it personally, and that’s how the 50,000 people that I represent feel — that was very hurtful to take in,” she told VICE News.
So far, only three airlines — Alaska, Spirit, and United — have publicly taken steps to combat sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo, according to the AFA.
Cover image: A Delta Airlines flight attendant sells food on board a San Francisco, California bound plane April 11, 2014 outside of New York City. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)