WARNING: This story contains distressing details
Two teens who say they were groped by men sitting next to them on flights say Air Transat and Air Canada did little to help — and in one case blocked her family’s efforts to get answers.
One is a 14-year-old girl, who was seated next to a stranger on an Air Transat flight in late August.
Her mother had signed her up for Air Transat’s unaccompanied minor program — which promises parents “peace of mind.”
At first the man seemed friendly, the girl told Go Public, even playing games with her on the seat screens in front of them.
She says she told him her age. But two hours into the 10-hour flight things took a dark turn when the stranger propositioned her using crude language asking if she wanted to see his genitals, she says.
She says she didn’t know how to respond. The man eventually seemed to fall asleep and so did she — until she woke up to him touching her, she says.
“He started leaning his head into me, and then he crossed his arms. And then he started caressing my arm up and down. I was trying to lean the other way to get away from it. But he didn’t stop. And then eventually he grabbed my breast and then he smiled at me.”
CBC News is not revealing her identity or her mother’s because the girl is a complainant of sexual assault.
The girl says she moved to another seat and told a flight attendant, in detail, what happened. She says she didn’t note the attendant’s name.
But when the flight landed, no one from Air Transat said anything to her mother, despite getting her to sign paperwork saying her daughter had been delivered safely.
“They left a 14-year-old girl to navigate this on her own… it’s unacceptable,” her mom said.
Air Transat tells Go Public it launched an “in-depth” internal investigation after the mom complained, and claimed none of the crew members “witnessed nor were made aware” of the incident.
The evidence suggests that the airline didn’t speak with the girl or any other passengers — but should have, according to lawyer and law professor Janine Benedet, whose research at the University of British Columbia focuses on sexual violence against women including assaults on public transportation.
Airlines must “take every possible effort to gather the information that is there. Otherwise you’re going to have guys that keep doing it and they’re going to keep getting away with it,” she said.
Air Transat said in a statement it can’t “compel” anyone other than staff to be interviewed. When Go Public asked if it could simply ask passengers what they witnessed, the airline responded it “does not have the investigative powers of the police.”
It offered to go over the report with the mother, but when she asked for a copy of it ahead of the meeting, Air Transat refused.
It also refused to give Go Public even a redacted copy, and didn’t say why. Air Transat also refused to provide its official policies and procedures when dealing with reports of in-flight assaults, citing the “sensitivity” of such cases.
Clear, public policies
But one expert says airlines need clear, standardized policies on how they deal with reports of in-flight sexual assault — and must make those polices public.
“Best practice is to share that with the public and make those available so that everybody knows and everybody’s on the same page,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, a U.S. clinical psychologist and one of the authors of the 2021 study The Nature of In-flight Sexual Assaults.
“Ideally, throughout the airline industry, we would have similar policies and procedures in place so that everybody knows — if something like this should happen — how they can report it and what will happen as a consequence.”
The mom isn’t sure she wants to file a police report, saying her daughter’s been through a lot already.
Similarly, a 19-year-old says Air Canada was of little help after she reported being sexually assaulted on a flight from Vancouver to Toronto in June.
She says the man next to her repeatedly put his hand on her thigh and between her legs while pretending to sleep. CBC News is also not revealing her identity.
She says she got out of her seat and tearfully reported it to a group of flight attendants. The head flight attendant jotted some information on a notepad, she says, and the man and potential witnesses were questioned.
The man denied any wrongdoing and a couple nearby said they didn’t see anything. That’s when the attendant told her “it’s your word against his,” she said. The teen says she was confused and upset by both the stranger’s assault and the attendant’s response.
That’s when the attendant asked the teen to decide what should happen next.
“I just felt powerless that something like this could happen to me and nothing can be done because the man is saying that it didn’t happen,” she said.
“So I told her, ‘Well, if there’s nothing I can do, then I guess that’s it.'”
Her dad was waiting when the plane landed, she says. She broke down in tears and told him everything. He took her directly to Peel Regional Police to file a complaint.
The man is now facing one charge of sexual assault and has not yet entered a plea.
Two weeks after the incident she emailed four higher-ups at Air Canada, including the manager of corporate security, seeking answers about how it was handled. To date, they haven’t addressed her questions.
Like Air Transat, Air Canada wouldn’t share a copy of its official procedures — it didn’t say why — but says they were correctly followed: The customer was moved to another seat immediately, asked if she wished to have authorities meet the aircraft on arrival, and left to make the decision regarding next steps.
That’s not a “particularly trauma-informed response,” said Benedet. She says the plane instead should have been met by experienced investigators and that the complainant should have been given more time to process the events before deciding how to proceed.
Both Air Transat and Air Canada say passenger safety is a priority and that their flight crews are trained on how to deal with in-flight sexual assaults.
Neither would answer specific questions about how their staff are trained to respond in these cases.
Go Public asked Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat how often in-flight sexual assaults are reported. Air Canada and Air Transat wouldn’t provide numbers or explain why.
WestJet would not say how many incidents are reported. It said 53 per cent of sexual harassment reports for 2023 as of Oct. 3 were considered “low-level” with no police involvement required, but would not answer further questions, including whether it distinguishes between sexual assault and harassment.
Following a study of in-flight sexual misconduct, the U.S. Transportation Department in 2020 made specific recommendations about tracking such incidents and training staff to deal with them.
Transport Canada won’t say if it plans to do anything similar.
Benedet says that’s not good enough.
“Canada should learn from that and build on it,” she said.
Air Transat says it is looking at potential changes to how it manages unaccompanied minors.
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