Anchorage, AK

A Cup of Coffee: Opinion - When an airplane ride ends in assault

Linda Tate
Beautiful Anchorage AlaskaPhoto credit: Linda Tate

Trigger warning: sexual assault

We are going to talk about something that doesn’t get talked about enough. Sexual assaults on commercial flights. Over the last eleven years, between work and personal travel, I’ve flown an average of once a month. I have never, ever felt unsafe, until my last flight.

This past weekend, my husband and I flew to Alaska to attend the AKOMA annual CME Conference. This is a wonderful time when doctors come together to listen to lectures, increase their knowledge base, and visit with their peers. David (my husband) and I always enjoy attending as we get to see old friends and meet new ones. Our Foundation has a vendor’s booth, and we get to talk about our scholarship program and what the foundation has been doing to promote health and wellness.

This year was especially wonderful, as we hadn’t been able to gather for a while due to COVID restrictions. The air was light and jovial as we all caught up on the goings-on over the past several months.

The time to head home approached, and we made our way to the airport to wait for our flight home. As we sat in a restaurant at the airport, we shared a caribou and buffalo pizza and recapped our visit. If you’ve ever been to the airport in Anchorage, then you know how quaint it is. The music in particular takes you back to a simpler time. Hank Williams Jr. sings about his “Family Traditions” and Sonny and Cher belt out “I Got You Babe” as people mingle with each other, talking as if old friends. It is a serene airport.

As I boarded the plane, I felt happy. Content. Safe. This would soon change once I hit Seattle and had to transfer planes on my last leg to Portland Oregon.

It was only a 30-minute flight. I didn’t think anything about being in the middle seat, which I normally avoid. I’m an aisle kind of gal. The man sitting in the window seat seemed cordial enough. I noted he was wearing sunglasses, even as the lights dimmed, but I tend to worry about myself, and didn’t put too much thought into it. I snuggled up against my husband, contemplating going to sleep, but reminded myself it was only a 30-minute flight, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep once we got home if I did that, so I decided to sit upright and stay awake.

Soon after the lights went out, the man next to me started to wiggle in his seat. I decided he was anxious. We were in the exit aisle, which always has a lot more legroom, but even at that, I scooted my body as far to the right as I could in case he didn’t feel like he had enough space. I didn’t want to make his anxiety any worse.

I would soon realize that he wasn’t trying to get away from me, he was trying to get closer to me. He started by pressing his body up against mine, then progressed to rubbing his leg against mine. I became more and more uncomfortable, and just as I was getting ready to ask my husband to switch seats with me, he stuck his hand between my thighs.

Having spent over 20 years in mental health, I knew the time to get loud was now. I instinctively yelled, “UM, EXCUSE ME!!“. He jerked back, removed his hand, and muttered “Oh, sorry”.

I sat there in shock. What the heck just happened??? Did that really just happen?! In the time it took for me to collect my thoughts, he was again rubbing his leg against mine. He seemed almost tortured by it as if he couldn’t stop himself. Once again, I confronted him, “YOU NEED TO STOP, NOW!”.

The seat belt light was on, and we were in some very rough turbulence. We had just been told we wouldn’t be allowed to take off our belts until landing. I grabbed my husband’s cell phone out of his hand and typed frantically, “you need to switch seats with me“.

My husband has a severe hearing disability. On the plane, he takes out his hearing aids and puts in earplugs to drown out the tinnitus. The plane was VERY dark, so he wasn’t aware of what had just happened, but as he read my note, he started to glare at the man next to me.

For a split second, I regretted alerting him. My husband is a sweet teddy bear, but if you threaten his wife or his family, then you will see a side of him that you’ve never, ever seen and don’t want to ever see again. I’ve only witnessed this side of him once, so you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you, it’s ugly.

Regardless of the seatbelt sign, he stood up and motioned for me to get up. My husband is a very big man, and interestingly enough, the “window seat guy” had no problem keeping his legs to himself once I was no longer within reach. I decided I had to tell the flight attendant.

I flagged her down as she prepared us to land, and she went and got the other flight attendant who listened to my story. She then stood up and said, “I’m telling the Captain“. After we landed, it was announced that we were to “stay in our seats and not get up“. Everyone looked around, a little surprised, but I had a feeling I knew what was coming.

The flight attendant approached me, waving at me to follow her. As we made our way down the aisle, I heard a male voice say, “Stay in your SEAT, sir“. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to know if it was “him“, attempting to follow me. David and I were escorted off the plane and we were met by police officers, waiting for us as the door to the plane opened.

The police took my statement and asked me if I wanted to press charges. To be honest, my heart was in my throat, I was shaking like a leaf in a wind storm, and I just wanted to bolt. My fight or flight had kicked in, and I’m not a fighter, so I had to run. I declined.

I knew our son was picking us up, so I stood by the glass doors at PDX, looking for our car while David got the bags. And then I saw him. Smiling to himself as he came down the escalator. His sunglasses on his head, the bright lights apparently didn’t bother him anymore. He was searching the crowd by the baggage return. Not looking for bags…he was looking for me. He looked relaxed and happy, joyful, even. I stood there, watching him, as anger rose up in my chest.

The minute I saw our son, I ran and got into the car. We couldn’t stay parked, so he drove me around until his dad could get the bags and get outside. I poured my heart out to him and I found safety in his disgust.

This was a Saturday, and by Monday I wanted to press charges. As of this writing, I’m taking steps to do so. Since this happened, I’ve learned that this is not an uncommon event. My friend disclosed it had happened to her, and another friend sent me several articles with information in them that I would like to share with you today, to bring awareness.

Samantha Manning reports that:

The rate of reported sexual assaults on airplanes has increased every year since 2014 according to data we obtained from the FBI. A Freedom of Information Act request shows there were 119 cases reported in 2019, up from 84 the year before — a nearly 30 percent jump. ‘As an industry, we’re not doing enough to take on this issue yet,’ said the President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Sara Nelson.

Nelson said according to a survey the organization gathered, one in five members reported they have been sexually assaulted on the job. Only seven percent said they have reported the assaults. The FBI said just like with most sex crimes, sexual assaults on airplanes are underreported.

Nelson believes the rise in cases is because more people are coming forward to report the assaults. ‘It is a whole host of groping and grabbing and slapping and touching,’. Nelson said predators often take advantage of their surroundings in the skies. ‘Seats are closer together,’ Nelson said. ‘There is an ability for the ‘oops factor.’ The line of sight is less. There are fewer flight attendants on the planes.

She said the lack of standardized training across the airline industry is another hurdle that affects how reports are handled. ‘You don’t have specific instructions in the manual to deal with this and then flight attendants are left to make their own determination and they’re in a very difficult situation,’. Nelson hopes the changes now in the works will help make flights safer.

She continued, “In 2018, Congress approved the creation of an in-flight sexual misconduct task force within the U.S. Department of Transportation. It includes law enforcement and airline representatives. They are reviewing policies and requirements for airlines when it comes to responding to sexual assaults. ‘There’s a discussion among the industry about how to address this issue,’ Nelson said.

If there’s one thing I want to say to you this week, it is “don’t just take it“. Nobody has the right to make you feel uncomfortable or scared. You have every right to speak up, and to let them know that they are violating your space. It feels awkward and it feels gross to even have to say the words, but say them we must.

We aren’t just speaking these words for ourselves. We are speaking them for the ones that came before us, who didn’t have the ability to use their voice, and the ones behind us who hopefully won’t have to tell them to stop because we did. There is no proof that this man hasn’t done this before and no proof that he wouldn’t be just as aggressive with a teen or a child. We absolutely must find our voice, if not in the moment, then later when we’ve regained safety and feel more supported.

Awareness doesn’t equal safety. I’m probably more aware than most, and it happened to me. I also don’t consider myself shy or a wilting violet, and yet this mentally shrunk me into a ball. It’s not your fault if this happens. My husband has been kicking himself for “letting me sit next to a stranger” but you know what? The blame lies solely with the perpetrator, period.

Not me. Not my husband. Not the airline. The perpetrator. End of story.

If you are reading this and you have found yourself wanting to touch someone inappropriately, or have actually sexually assaulted someone, then get help. You have no right to do this. Get help, because your next stop will be jail, and that won’t be pleasant, I assure you.

Women such as myself refuse to be your victims any longer.

That’s all I have for you this week, dear reader. I’ll see you back here next Wednesday to share another cup of coffee. Until then, be good to yourself and each other.

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I am the Communications Director for the Northwest Osteopathic Medical Foundation. A Cup of Coffee is a health and wellness blog that can sometimes be very humorous. We hope you enjoy the blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Feel free to view our page at

Canby, OR

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