Two men were charged with abusive sexual contact on an aircraft, prosecutors in Washington state announced last week, amid calls for better enforcement and stricter procedures for responding to sexual harassment and assault on planes.
The sexual assault cases for the two men, Babak Rezapour and Nicholas Matthew Stephens, are separate.
Rezapour has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman as she slept on a flight from London to Seattle in January. He allegedly used his jacket to stop other people on the flight from noticing the assault.
The woman, who was taking anti-anxiety medication had had a glass of wine and accepted another glass from Rezapour, which made her “unusually sleepy” according to authorities.
According to the Washington Post, the woman attempted to write a note on her phone to give to another passenger but fell asleep again. The woman said Rezapour was touching her vagina and putting her hand around his penis.
The victim, who woke up as Rezapour was assaulting her, went to the back of the plane where she reported the crime to the flight crew.
In an assault in March on a flight from Anchorage to Seattle, Stevens allegedly moved closer to the woman he victimized, placing himself in the vacant seat that had been between them, the U.S. Attorneys Office in the Western District of Washington said.
He asked the woman personal questions and rested his head on her shoulder before feigning sleep, at which point he put his hands on her thigh and breast. She reported the incident to an airline employee, who contacted Port of Seattle Police.
There have also been incidents when airlines have not responded appropriately, according to BuzzFeed News, which recently reported on women’s interactions with flight attendants and airlines after men masturbated near them on flights.
One woman saw the man next to her masturbating during her flight, which she reported to a flight attendant after the plane touched down. The flight attendant moved her to a different seat and told her that the crew contacted law enforcement. But they never did. Another woman said the crew joked about what had happened when she informed them a man was masturbating next to her, BuzzFeed reported.
Incidents like these are difficult to monitor because no federal agency tracks nationwide data on the frequency of assaults on commercial flights, CNN explained in its report on sexual assault on planes last year. And victims say that they don’t think airlines have clear procedures in place for how to handle sexual harassment and assault on planes.
FBI investigations into assaults on planes increased by 66 percent from 2014 to 2017. The agency doesn’t have a breakdown, however, for the types of sexual assaults they investigated. A survey of more than 3,500 flight attendants from 29 U.S. airlines, which was released last year, found one of five attendants received a report of sexual assault from a passenger about another passenger during a flight. The authorities were contacted or met the plane “less than half the time.” According to the survey, “the overwhelming majority of responders report no knowledge of written guidance and/or training on this specific issue available through their airline.” Sixty-eight percent of flight attendants experienced sexual harassment themselves and 18 percent experienced physical harassment, such as being groped by passengers.
Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union representing flight attendants, told CNN last year, “Not only are we not equipped with good, clear policies about how to do that and training about how to do that, you’re asking people who are experiencing sexual harassment every single day to now be the enforcers, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”