When RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, partnered with us to host new trainings this summer, they’d never worked with an airline before. Sunitha Menon, who leads RAINN’s consulting work across industries, thought she’d seen it all.
Then she learned about airplanes.
“Sexual assaults on an airplane are not much different than those on a cruise line, but you have the complication of flying people around in a metal tube,” she said. “On a cruise, you have a medical team, guest care team – literally everyone you need is on the ship. Airplanes don’t have that. They’re a small space. We talk about moving people to a safe space [when an incident occurs], but you don’t always have that luxury on a plane.”
Every day, Alaska Airlines transports more than 130,000 passengers. That’s more than three Safeco Fields worth of people.
For Krystle Berry, this reality is ever-present. She’s been an Alaska Airlines flight attendant for almost 12 years, encountering people from all walks of life.
“So many of us have been the object of inappropriate comments or touching,” she said. “The objectification of flight attendants has been an issue in our industry since our career was invented.”
Berry has long been involved with national discussions around workplace discrimination and harassment. At Alaska and in the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), she’s known among fellow crew members as an advocate, pointing out when something doesn’t feel right. Sexual misconduct comes in many forms and isn’t always what you expect.
“I remember an instance involving a young male flight attendant,” she explained. “It was a bachelorette trip to Cabo. The female passengers were grabbing him and pulling him onto their laps. We were in the back saying this is not ok. He didn’t feel like he should say anything because he is a man and men don’t often come forward after being assaulted.”
Hearing employee stories like this one isn’t easy, but they need to be shared.
When it comes to sexual harassment and assault, Alaska Airlines has a zero-tolerance policy.
“Sexual harassment and assault have absolutely no place in our workplace, on board our flights, or any place,” Alaska Airlines Vice President of People Andy Schneider said. “We recognize the critical role that airline employees play in ensuring an aircraft is safe for everyone on board. We have taken some big steps this year to prevent and respond to sexual harassment on board our aircraft.”
Through our partnership with union leaders and RAINN, we held mandatory trainings this summer with leaders of pilots and flight attendants. We then extended those trainings to all leaders throughout the company – whether they interact directly with guests or sit behind a desk. The trainings focused on providing skills and strategies for preventing – and responding to – sexual harassment and assault.
“The most important thing is to get the people in charge trained on what sexual assault and violence is, why people don’t report incidents and how to prevent and set boundaries when people cross them,” Menon explained. “Alaska came to us asking, ‘How do we improve what we do?’ and it’s been really lovely working with you all.”
While preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault on airlines is inherently complicated, Menon has been encouraged by the institutional knowledge of our employees.
“One of the great things about Alaska Airlines is how much time people have spent there,” she said. “The level of dedication and commitment is something I haven’t seen in any other organization.”
Berry is glad flight attendants and the company are finally talking about this issue. It’s no longer the elephant on the plane.
“We are becoming more consciously aware of what harassment and discrimination looks like,” she said. “As a society, we’re starting to make the conscious realization that these behaviors are not ok. Women and men are starting to stand up.”
Berry recalls when Alaska flight attendants completed a transition training as part of our efforts to merge with Virgin America and become one airline. Sexual harassment and assault prevention was a major topic of discussion and all flight attendants were formally trained on active intervention.
“They had all of us flight attendants as a captive audience and we had time to really digest the issue together,” she said. “I thought it was designed to be a very safe environment to have a difficult conversation.”
In addition to opening the lines of communication, Alaska Airlines employees are empowered to ensure an incident is properly reported. We have a 24/7 hotline and a reporting tool called “Report It!” This safety app is installed on every company-issued mobile device, allowing our frontline employees to instantly report any allegation of harassment or assault, and flag it for investigation.
Before Report It!, we didn’t have a good way to triage incidents. Having a dedicated reporting app ensures fast follow-up and support.
“Any crime committed while in flight is considered a federal offense,” Schneider said. “Regardless of criminality, all allegations of sexual misconduct are promptly and thoroughly investigated. Investigators review all available information and interview those involved.”
For nearly two years, we’ve been working with stakeholders in the industry, as well as key policy makers, to guide federal policy to address this issue. The recently passed FAA reauthorization bill includes new provisions specifically related to addressing sexual misconduct on commercial aircraft.
Menon points out that reporting and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct isn’t about shaming; it’s about creating awareness that we all have different boundaries and ensuring protection if you feel those boundaries have been crossed.
“People don’t want to hear they’ve messed up,” she explained. “Culture-change occurs through education and awareness.”
Every day, we see examples of how our guests look out for each other and for our employees. While we’re moving in a positive direction, combatting sexual harassment and assault on our aircraft is an ongoing process.
“I’m glad to be part of the conversation,” Berry said. “I want to advocate for flight attendants and myself as a woman. I want to be a part of the culture shift.”
Anyone looking for resources to talk about sexual harassment and assault can visit RAINN’s online hotline or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.
For those in the greater Seattle area, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s (KSARC) crisis support line can be reached at 888-998-VOICE.