Lawsuit Alleges Airlines Overserved Passenger Who Raped Woman on Flight

A woman who said she was sexually assaulted by another passenger onboard an overnight American Airlines flight last year has sued the carrier in federal court.

The complaint, filed Wednesday by Colorado resident Aubrey Lane, alleges American failed in its duty to protect her and other passengers by allowing a visibly drunk man to board a June 16, 2017 redeye flight from  Phoenix to New York, and continuing to serve him as many as six alcoholic drinks.

The man, whose identity hasn’t been publicly disclosed, was seated next to Lane and harassed her throughout the flight, according to Lane and another passenger seated nearby. At some point during the flight, the man followed Lane to the plane’s bathroom where he sexually assaulted her, the lawsuit said.

“Knowing the clear dangers of intoxication and the sexual assault threats, especially on red eye flights, American offered no protection to Aubrey Lane…despite the verbal warnings of Passenger 12C and the obvious obnoxious, aggressive, threatening and intoxicated behavior of Passenger 12B,” the complaint, filed Wednesday in federal court in New York, said.

American Airlines’ spokesman Michelle Mohr said the company has yet to receive the lawsuit and will review the complaint once it does.

“We are deeply troubled by any allegation of misconduct onboard our aircraft or at any of our facilities,” Mohr said.  “If our crews discover or are told about any alleged illegal misconduct that may occur on the aircraft, law enforcement is contacted and will meet the aircraft upon arrival…It is up to law enforcement to determine what, if any criminal activity, took place.”

Airport police met with Lane at the gate after the plane landed, but her assailant was not apprehended at the time. Lane’s case was turned over to the FBI, which typically handles investigations of crimes that occur on aircraft, but the agency has declined to comment and no arrests have been made.

When Lane first approached the carrier about the incident last year, an American employee described it as a “nuisance claim” and offered $5,000 as a settlement.

The carrier later apologized for how it responded to Lane’s claim and said it has since put new procedures in place for following-up on reports of onboard disturbances, including sexual misconduct.

Lack of awareness

Lane’s case is one of several that have called increasing attention to the issue of sexual assault and harassment aboard aircraft in the past year.

Washington resident Allison Dvaladze sued Delta Air Lines earlier this year over its handling of a 2016 incident where a stranger sitting next to Dvaladze grabbed her crotch while she was falling asleep on an overnight flight to Europe.

Last November, Randi Zuckerberg,  a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, tweeted about explicit sexual comments made by a man sitting next to her on an Alaska Airlines flight, generating national headlines.

Earlier this month, a Denton man was arrested after he allegedly harassed and touched a woman on a Los Angeles to Dallas Southwest flight.

The Association of Flight Attendants has campaigned for greater awareness and training of flight crews to respond to in-flight sexual assault, a problem the group’s president has called a “silent epidemic.”

A 2017 survey of nearly 2,000 flight attendants conducted by the union found that 1 in 5 had received reports of in-flight sexual assault or harassment during their careers. Most said they had no knowledge of written guidance or training on how to handle such reports, according to the union.

The FBI, which typically investigates crime onboard aircraft, has also seen a rise in the number of sexual assaults reported on planes, from 38 in 2014 up to 63 in the 12-months ending Sept. 30, 2017. The agency said many incidents go unreported.

The awareness effort has made some progress, with a federal aviation bill passed earlier this month calling for the establishment of an industry task force to study and make recommendations to improve flight crew training and reporting of sexual misconduct on planes.

Executives at Alaska Airlines and United Airlines have also spoken out on the issue in the last year, with Alaska Airlines adding new training for flight attendants aimed at preventing and addressing sexual harassment or assault.

The alcohol factor

Lane’s case combines two elements experts say are frequently present in onboard sexual assaults — alcohol and overnight flights.

In an email to American Airlines executives sent a week after the incident, a woman sitting in the same row as Aubrey, identified only as Passenger 12C in the lawsuit, describes the man Lane said assaulted her as “stumbling” onto the plane.

“He fumbled in the aisle, struggling to find his seat, and once seated, he immediately confessed that he had been drinking for hours, that we was very nervous to fly and that he needed a drink,” said the email, which was addressed to American’s CEO Doug Parker, senior vice president of customer experience Kerry Philipovitch and another customer relations manager. “This man was not fit to fly, but yet American Airlines allowed him to fly.”

The woman said she watched as the man was served two vodkas, a beer and a soda, an order he repeated later in the flight. He began acting increasingly erratic, the woman said in the email, telling Lane he was “in love with her” and attempting to touch and kiss Lane over her objections.

The woman said she alerted flight attendants twice that the man was making other passengers uncomfortable and it wasn’t until a third complaint, after the man had spilled his beer, that she and Lane were moved to different seats.

Although she did not witness the assault, the woman said Lane’s demeanor changed about two hours in after returning from the bathroom, a period of time when the man was also away from his seat.

The woman said she waited for Lane in the gate area after the plane landed, where Lane told her she had been sexually assaulted in the bathroom.

“You may ask, and certainly the police did, ‘Why didn’t she report it to a flight attendant? In a nutshell, she was in shock,” the email to American executives read. “The flight crew had not stepped in prior to this, so I don’t blame her for not placing a lot of trust in their action to respond.”

Protecting passengers

Lane’s lawsuit alleges American Airlines failed to follow its own safety policies as well as federal regulations that bar airlines from allowing passengers who “appear to be intoxicated” to board an aircraft. Federal guidelines also prohibit continuing to serve alcoholic drinks to passengers who appear to be intoxicated.

The suit argues that American was negligent and breached the duty of care it owes passengers to ensure their safe travel by allowing Lane’s assailant to board the plane and continuing to serve him drinks, despite warnings about his behavior from a passenger.

Lane’s attorneys said communication with American has been “non-existent” since earlier this year. While the FBI investigation is still active to the best of their knowledge, Lane’s attorneys said they couldn’t wait any longer to take action against the carrier.

“The bottom line is, American Airlines’ number one priority is supposed to be passenger safety,” said attorney Meg Foley. “They failed miserably here.”

By Conor Shine [Dallas News]

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