In April 2016, a few hours into a Delta night flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, Allison Dvaladze was just drifting to sleep when the stranger seated beside her slipped his hand between her legs and grabbed her crotch.
“It was totally, completely shocking to have that happen,” said Dvaladze, the director of strategy for an international women’s cancer program based at the University of Washington. “I’ve traveled for years. I never heard of this and never thought about it.”
Perhaps she’d never heard of it because sexual assaults on commercial flights often go unreported.
And the perpetrators — including Dvaladze’s assailant — regularly walk off the plane without consequence, according to Mike Adams, who for the past four years was the FBI special agent at Sea-Tac Airport.
Adams, who retired Nov. 30, was notified of all such reported incidents on flights landing at Sea-Tac.
Adams said sexual assault is especially a problem on late-evening and red-eye flights when the cabin lights are dimmed.
“It’s quite common,” he said. “Many women and, in some cases, teenage and adolescent children, are victims. There are so many women out there, being touched in their crotch, touched on their breasts, and no one is reporting on it.”
The Association of Flight Attendants union surveyed its members last year on the subject. Among almost 2,000 flight attendants who responded, one out of five said they had dealt with complaints of sexual assault from passengers.
The survey found that law enforcement was contacted or met the plane less than half of the time.
Dvaladze’s experience suggests why the problem is not more widely recognized.
When she immediately hit the arm of the man who touched her, he blocked her and grabbed again. She struggled out of her seat, fumbling to disconnect her headphones and seat belt, and ran to the back of the plane, where she breathlessly told the flight attendants what had happened.
“They were trying to be supportive, but it was obvious they had no clear guidelines,” Dvaladze recalled. “They wanted me to tell them. They asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ ”
One flight attendant remarked on how common it was for a woman to be touched inappropriately and said, “You have to let it roll off your back.”
The cabin crew asked a Delta employee’s spouse to switch with her and Dvaladze was reseated farther forward. The flight attendants said they would file a report and interview people around where she’d been sitting.
But the cabin lights were out and many passengers were wearing sleep masks. Nobody had seen anything.
“I couldn’t sleep the rest of the flight,” Dvaladze said. “I just wanted off the plane.”
When it was about time to land, the flight attendants came and told her she had to return to her original seat — beside her assailant. The Delta spouse wanted his seat back to exit the plane more quickly.
When the plane landed in Amsterdam, no one from law enforcement met the passengers, and the man who had assaulted her walked off the plane as if nothing had happened.
Dvaladze was en route to Africa for her work on improving management of breast cancer in less-developed countries and had to rush off for her connection to Kenya.
A week later, she emailed Delta from Nairobi to follow up on the report filed by the crew.
After 30 days, she got a reply offering her 10,000 SkyMiles, as a “small token in hopes of easing some of the frustration and inconvenience you may have felt.”
Dvaladze was incensed at the inadequacy of the response.
“Sorry, but it’s not about the miles. This is a crime,” she says now. “It’s not a lost bag or a missed connection. It’s illegal.”
Dvaladze said Delta eventually informed her by phone that it had no record of an incident on her flight.
In an emailed statement, a Delta spokesman said, “We continue to be disheartened by the events Ms. Dvaladze’s described.”
“We take all accounts of sexual assault very seriously and conduct routine reviews of our processes,” he added.
FLAGRANT CASES GET ATTENTION
Dvaladze’s experience led her to start a one-woman campaign to bring attention to what she soon realized is a recurring problem, and to push for some way to address it.
Dvaladze created a Facebook page that rapidly collected other stories from scattered press reports of culprits who were caught.
▪ Earlier this year, Vijaykumar Krishnappa, 29, an India-born doctor, was arrested in New Jersey and admitted to groping a 16-year-old girl while she slept on a United flight from Seattle to Newark.
Under a plea agreement, Krishnappa will serve 30 to 90 days and likely will be deported upon release.
▪ Last year, a 26-year-old Oregon man, Chad Cameron Camp, pleaded guilty in Portland to sexual assault after a flight attendant saw him groping a 13-year-old girl traveling alone from Dallas on an American Airlines flight.
After protracted legal proceedings, Camp agreed to a plea agreement of 14 months, the time he’d already served, followed by supervised release.
▪ In October, California resident Jesse Salas, 23, pleaded guilty to assault after repeatedly groping and kissing a 16-year-old girl on an Alaska Airlines flight from Portland to Anchorage.
When the passenger on the other side of the girl saw what was happening and told a flight attendant, the pilot diverted the plane to Seattle, where Salas was arrested.
Prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of no more than 45 days. Salas is to be sentenced in January.
HARD TO PROSECUTE
Adams, the former FBI agent, said such flagrant cases leading to prosecutions are rare. More typically, he said, it’s hard to get evidence that will satisfy a court.
“When the lights are dimmed and no one is watching, it’s very difficult to prove,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get witnesses. Passengers in nearby seats, most of the time they’ll say they didn’t see anything. No one can really see what’s going on in a window seat.”
“Not all women will immediately report it, because it’s so shocking to them. They are stunned,” Adams said. “And when they do report it during the flight, the flight attendants don’t always know what to do. I’ve seen inconsistent responses by in-flight crews.”
Adams said that in his four years covering Sea-Tac, he had reports of multiple incidents of sexual assault, but the Salas case is the only prosecution he’s aware of during that period in the Western Washington federal court district.
For authorities to even get word of an assault on a plane, there’s a lengthy chain of communication required: The incident must be reported by the victim to the flight attendants, by them to the pilot, then on to the airline’s operations center, then to airport police and finally to the FBI.
If a pilot heading to Sea-Tac reports a sexual assault on board, Port of Seattle police typically would meet a plane upon landing and conduct interviews to assess whether sufficient evidence of the crime exists.
If the assault didn’t happen in Washington airspace, it’s a federal crime and they pass the report to the FBI to decide whether an investigation should be opened.
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams said the agency’s data tracks only cases where a formal FBI investigation is conducted.
She said that, in 2016, 57 such investigations occurred in the United States, up from 40 the previous year. So far in 2017, there’ve been 63 investigations.
In the case of Dvaladze’s assault, with Delta unable to find a record of the assault, it appears the report from the plane to the ground never happened.
The rules on what airlines are legally liable for on international flights is governed by the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty that covers matters such as lost baggage or a passenger’s physical injury or death.
The treaty doesn’t make airlines liable for emotional damage or for molestation that doesn’t produce physical injury.
Dvaladze said that allows the airlines to avoid responsibility.
“I’m so frustrated that they brush it off and do nothing,” she said. “It keeps happening and nothing is done about it.”
Seeking action, she contacted U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who last year wrote a letter to the attorney general and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration signed by 22 senators.
The letter called for the agency and representatives of the airlines, the flight-crew unions and other stakeholders to develop federal rules and best practices for dealing with the problem.
In July, Murray and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced a bill, the SAFE Act (Stopping Assault while Flying Enforcement), that would mandate training of flight attendants in how to treat the victims of on-board sexual assault and require reporting of such crimes and centralized collection of data.
The senators hope to insert the same requirements into the pending FAA reauthorization bill, which must pass by March.
In the meantime, Adams said, female fliers should be aware that sexual assault on airplanes does happen.
“We’re not telling people to walk around scared,” he said. “But be watchful. That’s all. Just be aware.”
“What I tell my wife, my adult daughters, my sisters, my nieces, they all know from me, if flying they sit in the aisle seat,” he said.
And if something does happen, “Yell and scream and fend off the assailant. Get the attention of the flight crew,” Adams added.
“Victims should insist on this being reported to the pilots and law enforcement at the destination.”