An interesting occurrence this week piqued my curiosity and got me digging for related incidents.
During an Ethiopian Airlines flight, a male passenger was assaulted by a female passenger seated a row behind him.
According to his narration of the ordeal, trouble started when he reclined his seat, and the passenger behind him complained of among other things, of “invasion of her private space.”
The seat pitch in economy class in most aircraft ranges from 30 to 33 inches, which is not out of the norm but in the ensuing melee, the victim of the incident got abused both verbally and physically.
The flight crew intervened and promised to refer the matter to airport police on arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, but it did not happen.
Unfortunately, the victim had a short connection to Nairobi and the aggressor also had a connection to Tel Aviv.
Not wanting to let the matter go undocumented, the victim settled for an apology recorded on video using his cellphone. He later posted the ordeal on his Facebook page.
That such an attack on a passenger by another can go unreported surprised me. So, I decided to research online for similar incidents and I was shocked by what I found.
You may have not heard of Allison Dvaladze from Seattle, US, but during a flight to Nairobi from her home town via Amsterdam in April of 2016, a seatmate slipped his hand between her legs and grabbed her private parts.
Shockingly, the crew had not notified security ahead and there was no airport police on landing in Amsterdam to deal with her case.
As if to downplay it further, Delta — the airline she was on — offered her 10,000 SkyMiles, as a “small token in hopes of easing some of the frustration and inconvenience you may have felt.”
She has since the incident embarked on a solo campaign to shine the spotlight on cases of assault on flights by fellow passengers.
One would expect that the law is clear on how to deal with any form of assault on the ground or in the air.
The most that airlines train their crew to deal with fighting passengers is by separating them. However, if you get into a confrontation with any of the crew during a flight, you can be sure that security and law enforcement agents will waiting for you upon landing.
In some — not all circumstances — the airline informs law enforcement agencies at the destination airport of midflight occurrences, particularly sexual offences, which they deem not to be a threat to aircraft operations.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) sums up all inflight misdemeanors under “disruptive” or “unruly” passengers including those involved in acts of violence against other passengers and crew.
In its guidelines on managing unruly passengers, IATA specifies that any person who commits an act of physical violence on board a civil aircraft against a person or sexual assault or child molestation thereby commits an offence.
There is therefore concern as to who has jurisdiction over the offences committed midflight. Consequently, many such offences are not reported and even if reported are loosely investigated or never followed up.
The Montreal Protocol of 2014 has since extended the jurisdiction of inflight offences to the destination country of the flight, in addition to the country of aircraft registration.
But this needs the collective support of airlines, airports and law enforcement agencies for successful enforcement.
So where does this leave passengers who are victims of inflight abuse?
Passengers have to first realise that it is important to object strongly and fearlessly at any instance of physical or verbal abuse, and any violation.
It is important to immediately get the attention and involvement of the cabin crew and insist on the pilot and law enforcement being informed.
Insist on the offender being identified using their boarding pass, since some passengers take advantage of empty seats next to their victims.
It is also important not to continue sitting next to the offender for the remainder of the flight.
Where you are a witness of inflight abuse or violation, take it upon yourself to intervene by involving the crew immediately.
Remember, inflight abuse whether verbal, sexual, racial or physical, can happen to anyone, so be your brother’s keeper during a flight.
Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant based in Nairobi. Twitter: @mosafariz; Email: [email protected]