Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sexual harassment onboard flights: Do airlines prioritise brand image over justice to crew, passengers?

On 17 June, a man named Ramesh Chand on board an IndiGo flight travelling from Hyderabad to Delhi was caught masturbating. A co-passenger sitting beside him complained to the crew, and the man was arrested upon landing in Delhi.
This isn’t the first time we’re hearing about sexual harassment on Indian planes: Back in 2006, Kerala public works minister PJ Joseph reportedly molested a woman on a Kingfisher flight. He then earned the distinction of becoming the third Kerala minister to quit after being involved in sexual harassment cases and was later acquitted in a district court.

In 2009, a passenger on an IndiGo flight was found staring at an air hostess and “masturbating mid-air”, as the Times of India liked to call it. In January 2017, a business-class passenger on an Air India flight groped a female passenger while she was asleep. In 2015, a video of a woman slapping a man who molested her on an IndiGo flight went viral. There are several more videos of similar cases uploaded on YouTube for no discernible reason, except perhaps to shame the men involved, or to satisfy the voyeuristic curiosity in videos of molestation that we’re now seeing in the age of smartphones and easy video recording.

An August 2016 article published in Slate tried to explore what happens in cases of sexual harassment on long-haul flights. It seemed to come to the conclusion that airlines are grossly ill-equipped to handle these instances, and the reasons seemed to boil down to three rough areas: a fear of ruining the airlines’ reputation, a fear of being sued if the allegations prove to be false, and a concern about how expensive it is to divert a plane to an unplanned landing during an international flight.
Shylaja Gopal, who was a flight attendant for eight years with Jet Airways, adds that airline staff are keen to de-escalate these kinds of situations as much as possible, as they can’t take action based only on one person’s complaint, and that the situation could reflect badly on the airlines if the accused ends up being found innocent.
Something about this protocol doesn’t sit right, does it? Maybe it’s that it feels like an unsatisfactory response that’s tailored to suit the status quo of how flights and cabin crews currently work and are staffed, not like a plan that’s been formulated to create targeted mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment and women’s safety specifically.

That being said, what more can you do when flying thousands of feet above the air with no official authorities on hand to intervene? I’m not sure. Would it be a good idea to have security guards or officials entrusted with the responsibility of making sure that flights are safe from criminal actions? Should cabin crew be taught that the reputation of the airline or the possibility of legal action against them is not greater or more important than the safety of women passengers?
22/06/17 Sharanya Gopinathan/First Post