Tweets Show Why Sexual Assault on Planes Is Difficult to Solve

October 26th 2016

Laura Donovan

A woman's recent tweets about being groped on an airplane are spreading awareness about the murky realities of experiencing sexual assault while flying. 

Ariana Lenarsky, a Los Angeles-based writer, began by detailing how she was allegedly assaulted on the plane. 

She tweeted that another woman told flight attendants she'd been assaulted by the same man. 

Lenarsky's Twitter thread lays out the complications of reporting sexual assaults on aircrafts. 

Lenarsky added that pressing charges against this man would require her to spend her own money to fly back to Texas, from where her flight departed:

These tweets point to the many challenges of being sexually assaulted on an aircraft.

In 2016, airline sexual assault investigations by the FBI have increased by 45 percent compared to the previous year, according to a recent New York Times article, which noted that there is currently "no centralized system for collecting sexual assault reports from airlines, and no special training for flight attendants in handling sexual assault."

Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, told The New York Times that alcohol, small spaces, a shortage of flight attendants, and dark cabins during late night travels may explain why sexual assault is such a problem on planes.

“Sexual harassment and assault is happening on aircraft, and we believe it’s happening more often because of the conditions on board,” she said.

Who actually handles in-flight sexual assault?

When informed about Lenarsky's viral plane story, Los Angeles-based sex crimes attorney Robert Bernstein told ATTN: that because in-air crimes are under special aircraft jurisdiction with the F.B.I., the case investigation should be allowed to take place anywhere in the country.

"It would only be Austin's jurisdiction if it occurred while it was on the ground in Austin," he told ATTN: over the phone, adding that it can be hard to prove sexual assault occurred when someone touches another passenger in a cramped space like an airplane. "This requires what is called specific intent. If I intend to grab your breast, and I do so, I have committed a crime. If I am reaching to put my bag [on the plane] and accidentally touch your breast, I have not committed a crime. It can get a little confusing when you deal with a [groping] over the clothes in a crowded situation. It does allow someone to claim that, 'I never intended to do that, I didn't even know I touched her in this way.' It does provide a possible defense."


Bernstein said that while he is not familiar with Lenarsky's incident, he thinks she might have been referred to Austin because authorities may not have believed her situation sounded serious. 

"For it to be a sexual battery, and that's the crime we're talking about ... it has to be a touching with the intent to arouse themselves or arouse the other person. The stroking of the calf would most likely be considered a misdemeanor, not a felony. And because it was less serious and not violent and there was no genital touching, the police could just be dismissive in the sense that there's a lot of paperwork involved because it is a federal case, and they would have to refer [it] to the federal authorities. They simply may not want to go through all that for something that doesn't sound as serious as some other assaults may be. Again, I'm guessing on that, I'm just trying to explain to you why she may have been given that answer."

Lenarsky was fortunate that flight attendants contacted police officials to investigate the incident once the plane landed. Some in-flight sexual assault victims don't receive this kind of help or support from their airline. 

Earlier this year, Slate writer Nora Caplan-Bricker interviewed a woman named Dana who claimed to have been sexually assaulted on a United Airlines flight to Germany. Dana said that the flight attendants failed to radio the information about the assault to anyone on the ground, allowing the assailant to walk away scot-free before she could identify him to authorities.