MONTREAL – In the wake of an onboard incident where flight attendants and bystanders acted swiftly to deal with alleged sexual harassment, Canada’s two biggest airlines say their crews are trained to handle passengers who pose a threat – though one expert warns that airline policy and behaviour are two different matters.
On Monday, Toronto Star journalist Joanna Chiu took to Twitter to recount an experience on a recent flight on which she overheard a man who appeared to be in his late 30s ask a teenage girl for a “dirty” photo.
Chiu, the Star’s Vancouver bureau chief, said she and other travellers intervened, informing the flight crew who had the man move after some resistance.
The post, which did not identify the airline, prompted hundreds of responses highlighting the harassment and aggression women often endure while travelling, and how bystanders and flight crew can play a critical role in helping victims.
WestJet Airlines Ltd. said flight crews have a “duty to assess, refuse or move anyone who is exhibiting signs of not being fit to fly or is perceived to be posing a risk to the safety and well-being of our guests and crew.” Crews have the authority to remove a guest from the flight at the next touchdown and request authorities on the ground ahead of time.
Air Canada declined to detail its training procedures “in order to protect the effectiveness of using them,” but said it has a range of protocols to handle safety concerns.
Julie Roberts, who heads the airline division of 15,000 flight attendants at the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says a flight manual at Air Transat, where she works, lists four levels of interference, with response options that range from re-seating to separation techniques.
On board is a restraining kit that includes handcuffs, an upper-body seat belt and even a “spitting mask,” she said. “If the behaviour doesn’t stop…I would get the pilot to make sure the RCMP is waiting,” said Roberts. Passengers between the ages of 12 and 16 who are travelling alone are seated in first class when possible, she said.
With safety top of mind, though, subtler interactions, including inappropriate remarks or touching, may go unnoticed.
“It could use some more attention…Harassment policies within most airlines are pretty outdated,” Roberts said, adding that passenger vigilance is key.
Angela Marie Marie MacDougall, executive director of the Battered Women’s Support Services non-profit in Vancouver, said air travel can open the hatch to “men who want to assert their dominance.”
“You’re in such close proximity in those airline seats and there’s this extraordinary amount of physical intimacy,” she said. “Like with a lot of sexual harassment, it’s usually a thing around opportunity.”
MacDougall said Canadian reserve and politeness can wind up enabling harassment.
“Canadians are by and large polite…and so to speak out about something is not a cultural norm,” she said. “What we’re asking people to do now is to break some of the taboos that we’ve had around speaking out.”
MacDougall applauded vigilant flight attendants, but said harassment policies aren’t always put into practice.
“I’m aware of experiences of unaccompanied minors that have been sexually assaulted by men – girls 10, 12 years old,” she said. “Policy does not mean something gets done.”
MacDougall recommended several ways to help in a threatening situation. Bystanders can ask the woman if she’s OK, offer to switch seats or alert authorities. They can start by simply asking her the time so she knows she’s not alone, or looking disapprovingly at the harasser.
“Women know, girls know that this kind of thing is endemic. It’s a well-worn path in Canada. Largely we suffer in silence,” MacDougall said.
“It’s only been in recent years – because of social media, frankly – where we’ve able to amplify our experiences of sexual harassment.”