More Reports of In-Flight Sexual Assault Than Ever Before — and What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

When the female passenger was seated aboard an airplane operated by Spirit Airlines during an overnight flight from Las Vegas to Detroit this past January, she was more than startled when she awoke to find the fingers of Prabhu Ramamoorthy in her unzipped pants during an attempt to sexually probe, fondle and penetrate her while he sat next to his wife.

More Reports of In-Flight Sexual Assault Than Ever Before — and What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

Ramamoorthy was found guilty by a jury of sexual assault of the 22-year-old unidentified woman on Thursday, August 16, 2018. “His sentencing date is set for December 12, and he could face up to life in prison”, according to this article written b. “After finishing his sentence, Ramamoorthy — who is in the United States on a work visa — will be deported to his home country.”

If you think that you have been learning more about sexual assaults aboard airplanes in recent years, you would be correct. In fiscal year 2014, 38 cases of sexual assault during flights were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States; and in the last fiscal year, 63 cases of sexual assault were reported, which represents an increase of almost 66 percent.

“It’s safe to say that many incidents occur that are not reported,” said David Gates, who regularly investigates sexual assault cases as a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is based at Los Angeles International Airport. According to this article from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Gates is one of the many airport liaison agents assigned to the nearly 450 aviation facilities in the United States which have passenger screening operations regulated by the Transportation Security Administration.

Compared to the tens of millions of citizens of the United States who fly as passengers aboard airplanes each year, the number of sexual assault victims during flights is relatively small, “but even one victim is unacceptable,” Gates said. “We are seeing more reports of in-flight sexual assault than ever before.”

Caryn Highley — who is a special agent who investigates crimes aboard airplanes for the Seattle division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — says that “people don’t think things like this happen on airplanes” and that “there is a perception on an airplane that you’re in a bubble of safety.” The truth of the matter is that — particularly during overnight flights of which people may consume alcohol or take sleeping pills; and a dark cabin and seating in close quarters can give passengers the perception of privacy and intimacy — offenders are tempted by opportunity.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself From a Sexual Assault

Investigators point out that offenders take advantage of the fact that some victims might not report an incident because they are embarrassed; do not want to cause a scene; or try to convince themselves the assault was accidental.

In most cases, when sexual assaults are immediately reported to members of the flight crew, law enforcement officers on the ground will be notified and will be waiting to respond when the airplane lands. If law enforcement is not able to respond on the ground, victims are encouraged after landing to contact the nearest office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Among the simple precautions which are suggested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to stay safe aboard an airplane during a flight include:

  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
  • Trust your gut. Offenders will often test their victims, sometimes pretending to brush against them to see how they react or if they wake up. “Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt,” Gates said. If such behavior occurs, reprimand the person immediately, and consider asking to be moved to another seat.
  • Recognize that mixing alcohol with sleeping pills or other medication on an overnight flight increases your risk. “Don’t knock yourself out with alcohol or drugs,” Gates said.
  • If your seatmate is a stranger, no matter how polite he or she may seem, keep the armrest between you down.
  • If you are arranging for a child to fly unaccompanied, try to reserve an aisle seat so flight attendants can keep a closer watch on them. Highley has seen victims as young as eight years old.
  • If an incident happens, report it immediately to members of the flight crew and ask that they record the identity of the attacker and report the incident. “Flight attendants and captains represent authority on the plane,” Gates said. “We don’t want them to be police officers, but they can alert law enforcement, and they can sometimes deal with the problem in the air.” The flight crew can also put the offender on notice, which might prevent further problems.
  • If you cannot report the incident immediately, report it as soon as possible, as agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation take every sexual assault case seriously and will pursue them — but after the fact, these cases are significantly more difficult to prove.


I have reported on a number of sexual assault cases in the past — including that of a woman who allegedly touched the breast and genitals of a fellow female passenger without her consent aboard an airplane which operated as Alaska Airlines flight 621 en route from Las Vegas to Portland on the evening of Sunday, May 8, 2016 and was sentenced to eight months of home detention and three years of probation on Monday, July 10, 2017.

Other cases on which I reported include a male chief steward of the flight crew who was accused of sexually assaulting a female passenger aboard an airplane which operated as Malaysia Airlines flight 20 from Kuala Lumpur to Paris almost exactly four years ago; and a man from New Jersey who was accused of sexual assault aboard an airplane for allegedly reaching under the blanket of a female passenger while she was sleeping in her seat and touching her inappropriately back in May of 2010.

The fact that reported cases of sexual assault are increasing is troubling, as the crime itself is very serious — but unfortunately, the environment aboard commercial airplanes are not guaranteed to be completely safe.

If you are the target or victim of a sexual assault — or of any other crime, for that matter — aboard an airplane, alert members of the flight crew as soon as possible. The worst thing you can do is not report it at all — for your safety, as well as for the protection of fellow passengers.

Photograph ©2018 by Brian Cohen.

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