If an American accuses a Canadian of sexual assault aboard a U.S. airplane flying from London to New York, whose laws apply? The United States will certainly take an interest, but so may other countries, based on the people involved and the airspace where the crime took place.
Unfortunately, more people find themselves grappling with similar questions. According to a recent report in The New York Times, the FBI has received an increasing number of plane-related sexual assault cases over the past years, including more than 100 between 2017 and 2018.
The role of the FBI
The laws for international flights can be complicated, especially when crimes involve citizens of different nations, an airplane registered in a third nation and the airspace of a fourth nation. However, U.S. citizens can generally turn to the FBI, and the FBI reminds us that it has authority over all sexual assaults that take place aboard U.S. airplanes and in American airspace.
The FBI also lists several precautions that travelers can take to protect themselves from plane-related assaults:
- Recognize predatory behaviors: Offenders may brush against you to see how you react. Tell them to stop. Ask for a different seat if you still feel threatened.
- Go easy on the alcohol and medications: Drinking too much or mixing alcohol with other drugs may knock you out and put you at greater risk.
- Put your armrest down: You can use your armrest as a barrier between yourself and an adjacent stranger.
Sometimes these steps aren't enough, and people still suffer assaults. If someone assaults you during a flight, the plane's crew are your first resource:
- Report your incident to the crew: The flight attendants and pilots can help separate you from the offender, and they can alert the authorities on the ground. With notice, FBI agents might even be on hand when the plane lands.
While the FBI takes these claims of sexual assault very seriously, international authorities may take more frustratingly dismissive views. In 2018, Slate told the story of a woman who reported an assault to the German authorities--only to be told the behavior was merely "rude," and she should "let it go."
It's important to remember that your citizenship can matter, so even if you land somewhere that the authorities don't seem interested, you may be able to report to the FBI. You may also look for help from an attorney with aviation experience and a solid legal background in international flights.
Make your voice heard
While it shouldn't be the victim's responsibility to know the laws and the process for reporting a crime committed in-flight, many airlines have been slow to act. And while the FBI received over 100 reports of sexual assault between 2017 and 2018, there were likely more cases that went unrecorded. Local police may simply throw up their hands and say they don't have jurisdiction. To make your voice heard, you want to contact the FBI, and you may want to enlist the aid of an experienced attorney.