Beware on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark – incidents of in-flight sexual assault are rising alarmingly, with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) going to the extent of issuing advice on ways to avoid the attentions of prowling perverts and midair molesters.

FBI investigations into in-flight sexual assaults have grown by 66% since 2014, a rate of increase far faster than growth in flights or passengers.

“Even one victim is unacceptable,” says FBI Special Agent David Gates, who is based at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and regularly investigates these cases.

“We are seeing more reports of in-flight sexual assault than ever before.”

Sexual assault aboard aircraft usually takes the form of unwanted touching. It is a serious crime that can land offenders in prison. Typically, men are the perpetrators, and women and unaccompanied minors are the victims.

“But at LAX,” Gates said, “we have seen every combination of victim and perpetrator.”

In fiscal year 2014, 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to the FBI. In the last fiscal year, that number increased to 63 reported cases.

“It’s safe to say that many incidents occur that are not reported,” Gates said.

In the US, crimes aboard aircraft fall within the FBI’s jurisdiction, and in the case of in-flight sexual assaults, agents describe elements of these crimes as being strikingly similar.

The attacks generally occur on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark. The victims are usually in middle or window seats, sleeping, and covered with a blanket or jacket. They report waking up to their seatmate’s hands inside their clothing or underwear.

One victim, a mother of two who was attacked in 2016 on a flight from the US West Coast to Africa via Europe, recounted her ordeal.

“I fly overseas often,” she said. “The flights usually leave around 6pm. I have dinner, watch a movie, and go to sleep. I was dozing off toward the end of the movie, and all of a sudden I felt a hand in my crotch.”

The woman instinctively said, “No!” and pushed the man’s hand away, but he came at her two more times before she was able to remove her seatbelt and get away, even as her attacker used the full weight of his body trying to detain her. As the assault was happening it didn’t make sense to me,” she recalled.

“It was all so disorienting and confusing.”

She ran toward the bathroom. Seeing her condition, passengers thought she was experiencing a medical emergency. Barely able to breathe, the woman explained what had happened and that she needed a flight attendant.

After the crew responded, while she was waiting to be re-seated away from her attacker, members of the crew told her that sexual assaults in the air were fairly common. One sympathetic flight attendant said that she, too, had been groped in the past.

“I was horrified,” the veteran flyer remembered thinking. “How can this be and I have never heard about it?”

NPR public radio in the US reported the case of a woman who is suing Delta over an alleged sexual assault. When she complained, she said she didn’t hear from Delta for months – and then the airline apologised for the “inconvenience” and offered her 10,000 frequent flyer miles.

The woman said she told the airline it was not an inconvenience, it was sexual assault.

A recent survey by the US Association of Flight Attendants found one in five have witnessed a sexual assault or had a passenger report a sexual assault to them. And nearly one in five flight attendants they have been sexually assaulted on planes themselves.

Night flight. Most attacks happen when cabin is dark

“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.

That is one of the reasons why 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,” Gates added. “Flyers need to be aware of their surroundings and take a few simple precautions to stay safe.”

Among suggested precautions:

  • Trust your gut. Offenders will often test their victims, sometimes pretending to brush against them to see how they react or if they wake up. “Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt,” Gates said. If such behaviour occurs, reprimand the person immediately, and consider asking to be moved to another seat.
  • Recognise that mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or other medication on an overnight flight increases your risk. “Don’t knock yourself out with alcohol or drugs,” Gates said.
  • If your seatmate is a stranger, no matter how polite he or she may seem, keep the armrest between you down.
  • If you are arranging for a child to fly unaccompanied, try to reserve an aisle seat so flight attendants can keep a closer watch on them. Highley has seen victims as young as 8 years old.
  • If an incident happens, report it immediately to the flight crew and ask that they record the attacker’s identity and report the incident. “Flight attendants and captains represent authority on the plane,” Gates said. “We don’t want them to be police officers, but they can alert law enforcement, and they can sometimes deal with the problem in the air.” The flight crew can also put the offender on notice, which might prevent further problems.

The victim of the 2016 attack – whose case remains open – has used social media to raise awareness about in-flight sexual assaults and has heard the stories of many victims. She agreed that assaults should be reported immediately.

“A lot of women don’t come forward because they are embarrassed,” she said.

“It is embarrassing in the moment. It’s awkward when the flight crew starts asking you all these questions and passengers are staring at you. The burden has been placed on you instead of the person who just inflicted this on you,” she explained.

“Recognise and understand that. People should not be able to get away with these crimes.”

Edited by Peter Needham