Long-haul flying is a highly artificial environment, in which people are placed in close proximity for a prolonged spell, often overnight. So perhaps it’s understandable that some people get upset. On a number of flights, I have witnessed conflicts about personal space: altercations about reclining seats, armrest wars, or cases where there’s an obese passenger who spills into the space of the occupant of the adjacent seat.
The often-free availability of alcohol often fuels such inflight conflicts. But of an all together more serious magnitude is the phenomenon of sexual assaults on planes — as suffered by Allison Dvaladze on a Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam last year.
Ms Dvaladze told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Phil Williams that the alleged attack took place about three hours into the flight, when the man in the next seat repeatedly groped her: “My initial response was just to hit him because I was so shocked. He grabbed me again and I hit him again and the third time he went to grab me I tried to block myself and he hit me.”
She alerted the cabin crew, but says: “It’s clear to me that they’re not trained to handle these situations.”
There is always a certain amount of petty crime in aircraft, usually involving thefts from bags: on flights to Prague, for example, the Foreign Office warns that this is prevalent, saying “there’s a risk of pick-pocketing on flights from the UK, so keep your passport and valuables with you before and during your flight”. But clearly a sexual assault is a more serious order of magnitude, and demands a proper criminal investigation.
The very nature of a long-haul flight should make it straightforward to deal with assaults: a passenger plane is a very public environment, the perpetrator can’t escape, and there are likely to be numerous witnesses. So a crime like this should be straightforward to investigate and bring to justice.
The cabin crew are onboard for the safety of passengers. If anything happens to jeopardise that, whether a drunk running amok or a serious assault, the passenger has to be dealt with. The aircraft is a crime scene.
Once the alleged perpetrator is identified and, if necessary, restrained, crew members need to make contemporaneous notes of what happened, and speak to passengers who witnessed the incident.
If a passenger reports inappropriate behaviour then the senior cabin-crew member should take control, assess the situation and speak to the alleged perpetrator and passengers in adjacent seats.
The captain must be alerted, so that he or she can decide whether to divert the aircraft because they have an out-of-control person onboard, or to make sure the police will meet the flight on arrival.
In the case of Allison Dvaladze, I estimate the plane would have been over Baffin Island in Arctic Canada at the time — not the sort of place you want to divert to in the middle of the night if you can possibly avoid it.
In a statement, Delta told me: “When we become aware of incidents onboard, we always investigate so appropriate action may be taken, coordinating with local law enforcement when requested by the customer and crew.”
Yet airlines tend to be good at warning passengers about the consequences of bad behaviour, but bad at following through. Partly that’s because it can be hard to prove, but I suspect it’s also because the last thing an airline wants is several members of cabin crew off the roster and having to attend court to give evidence, quite possibly in a foreign country. But unless they take attacks like this more seriously, they could face more stringent regulations.