'Security' Sexual Abuse of Flight Attendants Since 9/11: Terror Upon Terror

Bonnie Berry, Social Problems Research Group
Elicka S.L. Peterson, Florida State University

Since 9/11, commercial airlines have increased airport security measures in the forms of additional armed guards, luggage searches, and bodily searches by screening staff. One might expect that the screening staff would be better trained and more professionally-oriented than those prior to 9/11, given that the tragedy which occurred could likely have been prevented with better screening techniques. This has not proven to be the case, as evidenced by the number and type of security breaches that have happened since 9/11, such as passengers boarding the aircraft with loaded guns. The presenting problem for this analysis is sexual assaults perpetrated by the airport screeners against female flight attendants. Male crew are also targeted but not with the regularity of the female flight attendants, according to flight attendant reports. Relying largely on Association of Flight Attendant accounts, the assaults, and equally importantly, the non-reactions of the U.S. Department of Transportation (whose job it is to assure not only airline safety but also crew safety) will be described. Female flight attendants have complained that they have been singled out for searches and that those searches entail feeling up the employee under her clothes and with inactive screening wands, the latter clearly indicating that a search for weapons is not the purpose of the "search." When flight attendants refuse to be invasively searched, they have been subject to escalated abuse in the form of strip searches, verbal abuse, and visual inspections from passersby and airport employees. Also discussed, among other points, will be issues such as: privately-contracted screening companies who are not subject to government regulations, illegal discrimination against airline crews as compared to passengers, and the overall hostile work environment. None of these assaultive actions improve airport and airline security; they are simply abuse. As with sexual assaults in other populations, these behaviors are about power and control - nothing more.

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Updated 05/20/2006