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The FBI is warning that reports of sexual assaults on airplanes are on the rise. That may, in part, be due to the Me Too movement which is encouraging more victims to speak out. Sometimes it's passengers who are victimized. Flight attendants are targeted, too. And as NPR's David Schaper reports, many say they have not been properly trained to handle such incidents in a confined space miles above the ground. A warning, this story includes graphic descriptions of sexual harassment.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Allison Dvaladze works in global public health for the University of Washington's cancer center and often travels overseas. In April of 2016, she was on a Delta flight on a trip from Seattle to Africa when she says she was groped by the man seated next to her.
ALLISON DVALADZE: It was about three hours into the flight, and I was dozing off to sleep when I felt his hand in my crotch. And I - without thinking, I slapped his hand. I yelled no. I started to try to get out of my seat when he did it again.
SCHAPER: Dvaladze says she again tried to slap the man's hand away, but he groped her yet again before she was finally able to break free and run to alert the flight crew.
DVALADZE: And they expressed a lot of concern, and they were sympathetic. But at the same time, I realized nobody really knew what to do. It didn't seem that there was any protocol for how to handle this situation.
SCHAPER: Eventually, flight attendants switched her to a different seat, but Dvaladze says the crew did not contact law enforcement authorities. When she tried following up with Delta a few days later, she says she didn't hear back for a month. And then the airline apologized for the inconvenience and offered her 10,000 miles.
DVALADZE: I immediately responded and said this was not an inconvenience - that this is actually a crime. Here's the definition of sexual assault. And I - you know, I was just insulted by their response.
SCHAPER: Dvaladze is now suing Delta, and the airline would not comment because of that. In her suit, she faults Delta for inadequate training, support and protocols. And many flight attendants say that's true industrywide. A recent survey by the Association of Flight Attendants found that about 1 in 5 have witnessed a passenger being sexually assaulted or had an assault reported to them. And nearly 1 in 5 flight attendants say they've been sexually assaulted in the air themselves.
TERI: I've never been formally trained on how to deal with that type of situation.
SCHAPER: This is Teri, a flight attendant for 12 years. We're not using her last name because she fears she might lose her job. That situation is one she just had a couple of weeks ago.
TERI: I encountered a gentleman - maybe in his 20s - who was laying across a row of seats on a light flight inappropriately touching himself with children sitting around him.
SCHAPER: Teri says the man had his pants unzipped and was exposing himself, and she didn't know what to do.
TERI: It's not something that you can pretend like that isn't happening.
SCHAPER: So she called out to him loudly, and he stopped. Teri says she's also been poked and inappropriately touched by passengers and subjected to lewd propositions. In that flight attendant survey, nearly 70 percent say they've been sexually harassed in the year, and they have little recourse.
TERI: We're at 36,000 feet with nowhere to go. So if something happens in the air, you're forced to deal with that until you're on the ground.
SCHAPER: Even though she's trained to deal with everything from births to deaths on board to potential terrorism, Teri says she's had virtually no training for something that is much more common - incidents of sexual misconduct. Sara Nelson heads the Association of Flight Attendants.
SARA NELSON: Now we're asking flight attendants, who have been survivors of this for decades, to suddenly be the enforcers on the plane when we haven't set a standard.
SCHAPER: And Nelson says that only 7 percent of flight attendants who have been harassed or abused say they've reported it to their employers.
NELSON: And what that tells us is that flight attendants don't believe that they have the backing of the airline - that if they reported this, anyone won't do anything about it.
SCHAPER: The responses of the major U.S. airlines contacted for this story vary in how they described the training they do provide. The industry group Airlines for America says its members take these matters seriously, and they support creating a task force to develop best practices and to ensure that training is in place for all flight attendants. But flight attendants say the airlines' efforts thus far to improve training and focus on sexual misconduct in particular are piecemeal and uneven at best. Allison Dvaladze, who - since being assaulted - has become an activist on the issue, says she'd like to see a message from the airlines at least as strong as that about another no-no on board.
DVALADZE: Everyone on a plane knows that it's illegal to tamper with a smoke detector.
SCHAPER: Legislation introduced in Congress would require airlines to improve training, collect data on incidents of sexual assault and harassment and establish better reporting procedures. Supporters are hoping it can be attached to an FAA reauthorization bill that could pass this summer. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.