New legislation is being drafted to better protect women from sexual assault aboard commercial airplanes, because of the findings of a News4 I-Team investigation.
A review of federal court records by the News4's Scott MacFarlane revealed a series of recent sex assault cases on domestic U.S. flights, including aboard planes en route to Reagan National and Dulles airports. In each case, female passengers reported being molested by stranger next to whom they were seated.
In one recent incident, the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office investigated a Dulles-bound passenger for molesting a 15-year-old girl. In a criminal complaint filed by federal prosecutors, authorities said the passenger, Carlos Vasquez, ran his hand up the girl’s shorts, touched her buttocks and touched a “private area” as he sat next to her on a flight from Houston. The girl, who didn’t know her attacker, pretended to be asleep during the ordeal, prosecutors said.
MacFarlane’s review also found no federal government agency officially tabulating or tracking sex assaults on commercial airplane flights, including the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Justice Department.
In the wake of News4 I-Team’s story, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has drafted legislation directing the FAA to collect and maintain data on sexual assaults that occur on aircrafts during air transport, including domestic and international flights that land in the United States. Norton said the I-Team’s investigation revealed vulnerabilities in aviation law.
“Without some real time statistics and documentation, we cannot gain either the necessary information to prosecute these crimes or the insights to help eliminate them," Holmes Norton said.
Her legislation will be formally introduced next week, after the U.S. House returns from a week-long recess. It’s expected to be referred to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, of which Del. Norton is a senior member.
Several men have been charged with sexual attacks against strangers on airplanes since 2012, including men on flights to New Jersey and California.
Dana Larue, a California-based blogger, told the News4 I-Team she’d suffered a sexual assault aboard a flight to Chicago in recent months. Larue said the attacker fondled her legs and breasts.
Larue said she was so stunned by the attack, she failed to notify the flight crew.
“I knew there was nowhere to go," she said. "And I would’ve had to get by him to get out of my seat. I was just completely terrified and frozen.”
Larue notified authorities after her flight landed. The FBI, which investigates crimes aboard commercial flights, looked into her case, Larue said. But she said they were unable to bring charges against the attacker because other passengers and potential witnesses had already dispersed.
FBI agents and safety groups urge assaulted passengers or witnesses to immediately notify flight crews, if possible.
Veda Shook, president of the International Association of Flight Attendants, said airplane crews are prepared to respond to reports of assault.
“There’s only a handful of flight attendants sometimes as few as one flight attendant working a flight. It’s up to all of the passengers to be mindful of what’s happening around them,"