Flight attendant Caroline Bright was kicking off her last shift of the day when she realized one of the pilots on board reminded her of someone.
“I was trying to figure it out, was it a celebrity?” she told HuffPost. “Who does he remind me of?” He looked like her dad, she realized.
“When we landed and were waiting for the van to the hotel, I told him I’d figured it out,” she said. ”I told him, ‘You look like just my dad.’ I had a picture of him on my phone, which I showed to the first officer. ‘Doesn’t he look just like my dad?’” she recalled asking him. ”‘I think they look so similar.’”
The pilot’s response? ”‘It’s been a long time since a girl like you called me daddy,’” she said.
“I felt so grossed out. I turned and looked at the officer and gave him an expression like, ‘What just happened?’ And he just looked at me and shrugged. I remember thinking at the time that I must have said something inappropriate.”
Based on accounts shared with HuffPost from both current and former flight attendants, Bright’s story is among many instances of sexual harassment and assault in the skies. As more and more stories of sexual assault across industries come to the forefront, it’s impossible to ignore the dynamics of the airline industry, which are inherently gendered with origins in the sexualization of women.
From unwanted advances to groping and forced physical contact, assault and harassment are realities seemingly accepted as commonplace by the flight attendants we spoke with, all of whom attested to various levels of unwanted physical contact during their time on the job.
It’s what drives some people, like former flight attendant Lanelle Henderson, out.
Henderson worked for now-defunct Kiwi Airlines in the ’90s and again for a little under a year for now-defunct Airtran in 2004. She told HuffPost that it was her experience in the 2000s that turned her off from remaining in the industry.
Once, a male passenger who’d been drinking began making advances toward her throughout a flight to Dallas–Fort Worth, she told HuffPost.
“He would first grab my hand and compliment me, which in the beginning was flattering,” she said. “But then he grabbed and rubbed my leg. It was mostly embarrassing because the man behind him was looking at me as if to say, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I was just startled and a newbie and trying to be polite.”
Henderson said that the customer blocked her in the galley from moving between cabins. He eventually grabbed her butt. “The man behind him said, ‘Sir, enough already. This girl is not here for your pleasure.’” she said.
Flight attendants told HuffPost that the “customer is always right” attitude mandated by much of the service industry often prevents many flight attendants from confronting in-flight harassment themselves, Henderson said.
They’re not going to stop the plane. And then everyone’s going to be mad at you; you’re not a team player, you’re difficult.
Dawn Arthur also became disillusioned during eight years working as a flight attendant in both the commercial and private sector.
“I was really excited [before I became a flight attendant],” she said. “I thought it was so cool. But then you find out that there is no support in the industry. The pilots aren’t trained to handle assault and they don’t want to hear it. It’s not their job.”
Arthur, who told HuffPost she’s been “pushed into a corner and felt up” by passengers, said flight attendants may feel discouraged from taking action in order to avoid an in-flight delay or disturbance.
“If someone grabs you or threatens you, nothing is going to happen. They’re on a tight timetable. They’re not going to stop the plane. And then everyone’s going to be mad at you; you’re not a team player, you’re difficult.”
If there is a trend of keeping assault to oneself in the airline industry, former flight attendant Mandalena Lewis has broken it in a big way. She has not only spoken about her own alleged assault but is in the midst of a lawsuit against her former employer, Canadian airline WestJet, in part, she said, for firing her as a result.
According to Lewis, the company neglected to adequately handle not only her experience with sexual assault in 2010, but with a group of women she is now representing in her case.
Lewis recounted her assault to HuffPost, which happened during a layover in Maui in 2010. She said the incident ultimately led her to firing and discovery of other women who made claims against the same pilot who she said attacked her.
“We were on a layover in Maui, and the whole crew went out for dinner and drinks, totally standard,” she said. “The captain invited people up to his room. It was my second year of being a flight attendant and I was down to go up to the room and have a drink. I ended up going by myself. The first officer’s room was right next door and their door was open a bit.”
Lewis said the pilot had been acting “very father-like” up until that point, when the two of them went on the balcony. “There was nothing inappropriate and I didn’t send him any signals,” she said. “On the balcony, he started asking me really inappropriate questions: do I touch myself privately, do I masturbate, things like that.”
When she turned to leave, that’s when she said the pilot started to attack her. “It started almost like horseplay, gradually becoming more aggressive,” she said. Lewis said he attacked her three times. The first and second involved grabbing her from behind, squeezing her arms and commenting on how strong she was.
“The third time, he grabbed me and put me on the bed and got between my legs,” she said. “He touched my face and told me I wanted it and how strong I was.”
Lewis said she got her heels underneath him and kicked him off of her. “He fell backward into the TV stand. I was shaking, tears were coming down my face.” Lewis said that the airline took her off of flights with the pilot but did not take action to fire him.
It was in 2015 when she says she spoke up about the lack of training surrounding sexual assault during a crew resource management class. She said her concerns were brushed off by the person leading the training, but there were a few people who came over afterward and thanked her for speaking out.
“A few months later, I was on a layover in Toronto and I got a Facebook message from a woman who told me she was in the room during the training,” she said. “She asked if she could call me to tell me her story.”
“Sure enough, she told me that she was raped in 2008 by the same pilot. We didn’t know each others’ stories and we didn’t know each other,” she said.
Lewis told HuffPost both hired lawyers pretty quickly after that, but the other woman later settled with the company. “We dropped the class-action suit and I went forward as an individual case for wrongful dismissal and negligence” in early 2016.
The airline has disputed the claims — as recently as Nov. 9, saying employees should be bringing their cases “to human rights tribunals and workers’ compensation boards instead” of filing a lawsuit, according to Global News. Robert Palmer, manager of public relations for WestJet, declined to comment on “ongoing legal proceedings,” but said the company is “committed to fostering a harassment-free workplace where all employees are treated with respect and dignity.”
While the demographics for flight attendants vary slightly by airline and have shifted over the years, the industry is still majority female ― about 80 percent. But men in the field say they’ve also dealt with unwanted advances.
A male JetBlue flight attendant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told HuffPost he has been grabbed inappropriately multiple times by both men and women. Passengers commonly make comments referring to the mile-high club and “getting him in the back of the plane.”
In the event that a situation escalates, flight crew can notify the pilot, who will decide whether it is necessary to take action, either by speaking to the passenger themselves or, in extreme cases, removing the person from the flight. “Ten out of 10 times they have our side, but diverting and removing a person from the flight is obviously our last option,” he said.
For the people we spoke to, shrugging inappropriate behavior off had become commonplace. Many said even if they wanted to do something about it, the training isn’t there.
Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA as well as a 21-year flight attendant with United Airlines. She told HuffPost that in her experience ― along with the experience of some of the 50,000 flight attendants across the 20 airlines the association represents ― there is no exact protocol on how to handle it.
“There is very little training. It’s nonexistent, actually,” she said. “There is training on how to handle assault and aggressive behavior on a plane, but there is no recognition of sexual assault as a unique crime.”
She added that for a flight attendant tasked with getting a job done, it’s easier to just keep things moving than to confront a passenger or bring it to the pilot’s attention.
“One, it’s a confined space, where flight attendants are charged with de-escalating conflict every single day,” she said. “I had a conversation with a group of flight attendants ranging from six months seniority to 10 years on Friday and the conversation basically was, ‘We have to de-escalate everything and sometimes I just choose not to say anything.’ ‘If someone grabs my butt or pulls me onto their lap, I tell them to knock it off and keep going.’”
If allegations in other industries have pushed the conversation forward to put an end to assault, it has also emboldened people who Nelson say feel like they’re “out of the public eye” in the air.
“A flight attendant relayed a situation this week where a guy in the last few rows spoke up and said, ‘When can we get some drinks around here, honey?’” she said. While the flight attendant was still in earshot, Nelson said he loudly added, “‘You can probably get sued for calling someone honey nowadays,’” laughing with the men sitting around him.
Nelson told HuffPost she thinks things have perhaps gotten worse since she started in 1996, due to planes these days being more crowded than ever and equipped with less staff. “In a casual request from our membership about what’s happening today on the plane, we were barraged with examples,” she said.
Flight attendants who worked in the ’60s and ’70s might argue the notion that it is worse, now, though. A Facebook group titled Stewardesses of the 1960s and 1970s, which boasts more than 9,000 members, has a recently posted thread asking members about sexual assault that currently has more than 400 comments.
In spite of the frequency of sexual assault in the air, Nelson told HuffPost that she thinks the CEOs of airlines (most of whom are men) would be “shocked” to find out what’s going on on their planes.
“Men don’t think about this stuff,” she said. “It’s not their experience. They have no idea what it’s like. And even if they are someone who doesn’t participate, I bet if these men are really going to be honest, even the ones who would never do it themselves, have absolutely been sitting there and have done nothing while it’s happening.”
Still, Nelson has hope. “Any time an issue is raised, there is opportunity for change, but I think we are just at the very beginning of the conversation here,” she said, adding, “It doesn’t have to be this way. The more we talk about it and say it’s not OK, the better it will get.”