Fasten Your Seatbelt and Keep Your Hands to Yourself

By | March 30, 2019
CreditLilli Carré

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“I rage-whispered to him that I couldn’t help noticing that he was acting like a pervert.”

Joanna Chiu, a journalist who intervened after a man sexually harassed a teenage girl on a flight this week

Earlier this week, on a late-night flight, Joanna Chiu witnessed a man requesting a “dirty” photo from a high school-age girl seated next to him. Chiu had overheard him repeatedly try to get the girl’s attention — asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up (a C.E.O.) and other questions — but it was this request that drove Chiu to tap him on the shoulder and tell him he was “acting like a pervert.” He ignored her and went to the restroom.

Chiu, a bureau chief at The Star Vancouver and The Toronto Star, shared her story on Twitter and then in an essay for The Toronto Star.

“I was listening carefully because this has happened to me, too,” Chiu wrote. She and another woman reported the man to the flight crew, who told him he would have to switch seats or they’d consider landing the plane. (First he ranted, then he complied.)

Later, as he disembarked, he was met by security personnel. “He was sweating bullets,” Chiu wrote.

Chiu’s tweets — the latest account of sexual misconduct on flights — went viral. In December, a Michigan man was sentenced to nine years in prison for sexually assaulting a sleeping passenger on an overnight trip, and two men were charged in separate cases last year.

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[READ MORE: Sexual Assault on Flights: Experts Recommend Ways to Combat It]

Last week, two JetBlue flight attendants filed a lawsuit against the airline and two of its pilots, claiming that the pilots drugged them both and raped one of them and another co-worker during a layover. The airline took no action when it learned of the assault, the women said.

The increased attention on this problem has been attributed to a couple of factors.

One, that such violations have been on the rise because predators are exploiting increasingly cramped airplanes and dark cabins on night flights, Sara Nelson, who leads the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, has said. Another, that more women have been emboldened to share their stories amid #MeToo — and earlier, since 2016, when a woman came forward to say that Donald Trump had groped her against her will on a flight in the 1980s. A claim he’s denied.

Definitive figures about sexual assaults on flights are elusive because no clearinghouse for data exists, experts say. But what seems certain is that women like Chiu are increasingly determined to speak up.

In the incident this week, she said, it took the intervention of female bystanders to stop the behavior.

“Adult women passengers on the plane were paying attention and taking action while trying not to embarrass the teen,” she wrote.

On Twitter, she encouraged men to do the same, compelling many of them to respond with surprise. “They weren’t aware that airplane harassment was so common,” she wrote. “They promised to be vigilant, too.”

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On Tuesday, I asked you how gender has affected your comfort level when traveling solo. Now I’m wondering if you’ve ever been harassed or seen someone harassed on a flight. Tell me your story at or join the conversation on our Instagram here.


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Bessie Coleman was nicknamed “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World.”CreditGeorge Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

For Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting stories of trailblazing women you may not know, but should. Head over to our Instagram for daily posts.

She wanted to fly, but no aviation school in United States would admit her. So Bessie Coleman taught herself French, moved to France and became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921.

The daughter of sharecroppers, who were also of Native American descent, she was inspired by stories of the Wright brothers and World War I pilots. She earned her international pilot’s license in seven months. In an article published by The Times in 1922, Coleman was described by French and Dutch aviators as “one of the best flyers they had seen.”

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