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I was seated between two men. On the aisle-side was a 50-something year old man named Jim. We exchanged pleasantries, and I learned that, after a layover in Chicago, his final destination was Detroit where he would be attending a high school reunion.
10 minutes into the flight, a kid in the seat directly in front of me began vomiting. The vomit ran down through the seat and into my footwell, soaking my handbag and carry-on items in vomit. The crew was very nice about it, but noted the flight was full and there was nowhere to relocate me. There was nothing they could do but cover the mess with plastic and coffee grounds to mask the smell. That got the flight off on a less-than-comfortable note, to start. But that was nothing compared to what came next.
Later into the flight, I fell asleep. I awoke at one point to feel Jim’s hand… high on my upper, inner thigh. I thought it possible that it slipped down there while he was asleep, given the narrow nature of the seats on the craft, so I moved my leg away and went back to sleep. A while later, I awoke to find him pressed up against my arm, one hand on my leg, the other hand fumbling around my breasts.
I was terrified, and didn’t know how to respond. Stuck in the middle seat on a nearly silent, dark flight in the middle of the night, I was paralyzed with confusion and fear. I startled physically, hard enough that he removed his hands and shifted away. I couldn’t bring myself look at him. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know how to get out of my seat and past him to signal for help, and I knew from the earlier vomit incident that there was nowhere to move me anyway. I stayed awake and on-guard for the remainder of the flight, to keep him from making another attempt to grope me in my sleep. I tried to work up the courage to approach the flight crew or gate security, but (and this is something that you’d never fully understand unless you’ve been assaulted) that kind of violation and fear often leaves victims too stunned and shocked to take immediate action.
As soon as my parents picked me up from the airport, I told them what happened and immediately called Spirit Airlines to file a complaint. Knowing Jim was only on a layover, I needed to make certain that the crew of his connecting flight to Detroit (and subsequent return flight to LAX) were notified, so that he could be carefully monitored and above all, not seated next to any other women for their own protection.
The customer service representative that I reached listened to my story, and responded, as if reading from a script: “I am sorry for the inconvenience, but because you failed to report it in-flight, there is nothing we can do for you.”
To reduce the sexual assault of a passenger on one of your crafts to (as your agent referred to it) “an inconvenience” is offensive and demeaning in ways that words cannot begin to describe. To characterize my inability to speak up in the moment as a “Failure” is insensitive and cruel.
He then went on to coldly inform me that there was no recourse possible on their end, since they only handled reservations. I asked to speak to a manager – in fact I had to ask to speak to a manager four separate times before he agreed to transfer me – and the manager told me the exact same thing. No compassion, no sympathy. No concern for my safety or the safety of your other passengers. No offer to help me reach the appropriate department within the airline to get assistance. Only a cold, detached repeated transference of the blame to me, for not immediately speaking up. Blaming the victim. Super classy.
I requested to know the full name of my attacker, which I’m sure could have been easily retrieved from the flight manifest and seat assignment, so I could file a police report. I was told to contact the TSA because they were “the only people who could access that information or handle this incident”.
I asked to be connected with the O’hare Spirit counter, so that, for their safety and the safety of the other passengers, I could warn them about this passenger before his connecting flight – and I was again refused and referred back to the TSA. Both Spirit representatives with whom I spoke continued to insist that I made a mistake by not immediately reporting it, and showed no concern for my well-being or for fellow passengers that may yet be assaulted by the same man. I could not believe it.
I reached the TSA, who showed at least a modicum of compassion, but also said they only handle issues regarding entrance through airport security, and thus referred me to the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Agency (with whom I plan to file a formal complaint against Spirit for their lack of concern for passenger safety). After being bounced around on several more calls, I finally landed in touch with the airport police and filed an official report. Oh, and guess what? The police were completely understanding of my inability to immediately report the assault, and showed great compassion for my plight and urgency in bringing justice to the situation. FINALLY.
Meanwhile, I took to twitter, in the hopes that Spirit’s social media customer service representative would provide some better support and an in-road to making the crews on any future flights on which my assaulter is booked aware of the situation. The response I got? “Sorry to hear about your situation. You’ll need to file a complaint with the police, however.”
What about the fact that this passenger was going on to fly at least twice more in the coming weeks, including immediately following my flight? What about the fact that allowing him to fly, unsupervised, puts other passengers like me or your own employees at risk? What about the fact that sexual assault is a crime? What about customer service? What about decency? or compassion?
It took 6 full hours of an incredible outpouring of support from my twitter community before I received @Spirit_Helper’s revised response and invitation to email you. Six full hours in which thousands of your customers demanded better action on the part of your company. Demanded protection and justice on behalf of your passengers. Demanded boycotts of your airline due to your apparent lack of concern and your unbelievably cold responses. SIX HOURS to get a reaction that showed Spirit had even the slightest interest in understanding the situation better.
(It is also worth noting that @Spirit_Helper deleted her first response to me, about filing a police report, which only goes to show that she or someone at her office recognized how insensitive and irresponsible it was.)
I know it is not Spirit Airline’s fault that I was assaulted on your plane. But it is your responsibility, once made aware that there is a dangerous traveler in your midst, to take whatever steps necessary to ensure the protection of your passengers. It is your responsibility to help a customer who was violated on your plane make contact with the people who can assist her in reaching the right departments who can help. It is your responsibility to warn your crews that a sexual predator is boarding their plane. It is your responsibility to show even an ounce of compassion, and not blame the victim, but instead focus on a solution.
It pains me to think how much worse this could be. What if I had been raped on your plane? Would it have been this hard to receive any support from your company? What if I didn’t have a huge social media following who would mobilize on my behalf to incite Spirit’s social media rep to action? The lack of concern and urgency regarding my safety and the safety of your passengers and crew is astoundingly irresponsible and shameful on the part of your company.
As you can tell, I am no longer afraid to speak up about what happened to me, and I am prepared to go to the media if that’s what it takes to get a real response from Spirit Airlines about how poorly this situation was handled by your representatives, and how little concern you have for your passengers’ safety.
In refusing to protect your passengers, you enable the offender.
So… what are you going to do about it?