Sexual assaults on airplanes on the rise, FBI warns

Exclusive new information Channel 2 Action News has obtained shows the dramatic increase in the number of investigations.

Sexual assaults on airplanes are on the rise, the FBI warns.

Exclusive new information Channel 2 Action News has obtained shows the dramatic increase in the number of investigations.

In-flight sexual assaults are under the jurisdiction of the FBI.

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Channel 2’s Justin Gray filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI and found that in fiscal year 2019, the FBI opened 119 sexual assault investigations -- a dramatic increase over recent years.

In 2014, there were only 38 investigations.

Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, says just a fraction of the crimes are being reported or investigated.

Anyone who punches the person sitting next to them on a plane will be moved from their seat and authorities will be waiting on the ground. But Gray found the same is not happening with sexual assaults.

Lena Ramsay detailed her experience on a red-eye flight from Denver on Frontier Airlines.

“I wasn’t asleep, but I had a window seat and I was leaning up against the window," Ramsay said.

Ramsay, an Army veteran, said what happened next has in some ways been more difficult than being injured on-duty in Afghanistan.

“The man behind me started groping me. I still was kind of shocked. And, ‘Am I feeling what I’m feeling?’ until I saw his hand come through,” Ramsay said.

Ramsay said she went to the flight attendant for help.

"I had to get out of that situation immediately because I was trapped," Ramsay said.

That’s when you might expect the flight crew would jump into action and law enforcement would be called. But that’s not what happened.

"She sent me back to the seat," Ramsay said.

Attorney Annika Martin said this is happening because many airlines don’t have adequate procedures or training for responding to sexual assaults.

“It’s not that there aren’t ways to do this that they already know. They just aren’t doing this,” Martin said.

That’s why she filed a class action lawsuit against Frontier Airlines with Ramsay as a named plaintiff.

“You reported a crime and what happened?” Gray asked Ramsay.

“She helped him get off the plane, and I felt like I was the one who had done something wrong,” Ramsay said.

Only 7% of flight attendants say they’ve ever reported an incident of sexual assault on a plane.

But in the same survey, one in five reported a sexual assault occurring on board in just the past 12 months.

“It is dramatically under-reported,” Nelson said.

Flight attendants are both responsible for responding to the crime and are the most frequent victims.

"Flight attendants have not had the tools to deal with this or even thought that anyone would care if we spoke up," Nelson said.

In Ramsay's case, the pilot was not told and the authorities were not called until Ramsay demanded help from the pilot and the gate crew.

Witnesses, evidence, the suspect -- all gone.

“A sexual assault is OK? We don’t have to report it? That’s what I felt like. I felt like I was victimized again. And again,” Ramsay said.

In 2018, Congress ordered the creation of the National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force.

It is working on recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration.

But critics say the airlines should not wait on regulators.

“They have a lot of control over what we do but in exchange for that control, they have a duty to protect us and this is an affirmative duty in the law,” Martin said.

Frontier provided Gray a statement:

“We have strict policies in place to proactively and appropriately respond to reports of misconduct and alleged crimes. Frontier denies the allegations in the lawsuit and will vigorously defend itself.”

Gray asked if that means they deny that Ramsay was ever sexually assaulted or if Frontier questions her story.

A spokesperson did not respond.

The FBI is now investigating Ramsay's case.

But she still does not even know the name of the man who assaulted her.

"You’re paying money to them to be there and there’s nowhere you can go. You’re trapped. You’re really trapped," Ramsay said.

Gray also reached out to other airlines.

Southwest Airlines said their flight attendants are trained to report sexual assaults to the pilot and have law enforcement waiting for the plane.

A bill proposed in Congress would require flight crew training but would also increase penalties and require new signage and warnings in airports.