By now, you know that United Airlines has become infamous for having a doctor violently dragged off a plane like a rag doll because he wouldn’t give up his seat for a crew member. United initially claimed the flight was overbooked, but ultimately admitted that it was nowhere near full. But a few weeks earlier, another United passenger says she had to endure something that was at least as bad, if not worse. She says she had to endure sexual harassment at 40,000 feet–while her daughter was watching.
Last month, Jennifer Rafieyan and her 12-year-old daughter boarded a United flight from Newark to Phoenix. Rafieyan said that while she and her daughter were waiting for the plane to take off, they watched a flight attendant help a visibly inebriated 64-year-old man into the neighboring aisle seat. Rafieyan told The Huffington Post that the man was so drunk that the attendant had to guide him by the hips.
Apparently the flight attendants knew this was a dicey situation. According to Rafieyan, one of them mused that they were in for “an interesting flight,” while another glanced at the man and told Rafieyan, “Let me know if you need anything. I mean it.”
“Interesting” is being very kind to it. Once the plane was in the air, Rafieyan claims that the man rubbed her legs and knee, kissed her hands, and leaned his head on her shoulder. When he saw he was writing a list of items to take care of once she and her daughter touched down, the bottom-feeder scribbled “PASIONAT NITE XX” on it–in full view of her daughter
Rafieyan says that the whole thing “grossed me out.” However, she didn’t feel safe alerting a flight attendant right away; she didn’t dare leave her seat and potentially give him a chance to turn his perverted gaze on her daughter. After about an hour of feeling “trapped,” Rafieyan said she got a break when her daughter got up to go to the bathroom. She alerted a flight attendant, who told her that there was no other place where they could seat him. Even more chillingly, Rafieyan says the attendant told her that he did “the same kind of stuff” to the other attendant.
To pile obscenity on top of insult and injury, Rafieyan claimed that the attendants continued to serve this guy whiskey and wine. He then became very disorderly, among other things accusing people around him of stealing his passport. He only clammed up when the flight attendant threatened to divert the flight and boot him off the plane.
United, like nearly all major airlines, explicitly states in its contract of carriage that passengers who appear intoxicated risk being kept off the plane. Additionally, FAA regulations explicitly forbid airlines from allowing a passenger to board if he or she “appears to be intoxicated.” Airlines are also barred from continuing to serve passengers who become inebriated in-flight. Cliff Notes version–if Rafieyan is telling the truth, what happened on this flight was outrageously illegal.
One of the first things Rafieyan did when she returned home to Warren, New Jersey was write a formal complaint to United. In a colossal understatement, she claimed that the crew’s (in)actions “jeopardized the safety of everyone on board.” Initially, United responded by sending her four $100 electronic travel vouchers without acknowledging her accusations.
Rafieyan was not happy. She emailed United back to say that its response made her feel “devalued as a human being.” She also let United have it on Facebook.
She then reported the incident to the Department of Transportation, which maintains a database of these incidents. The USDOT encouraged Rafieyan to alert the FBI, which investigates reports of sexual assault on planes. Fortunately, Rafieyan had managed to take the bottom-feeder’s name from his boarding pass. The bottom-feeder could potentially face a minimum of eight years in prison for sexual assault, and up to a $25,000 fine for interfering with crew members.
After Rafieyan told her story to the Huffington Post, a United spokeswoman offered an apology for both her ordeal and United customer service’s initial handling of her complaint. The spokeswoman also promised to get in tough with Rafieyan to “discuss how we could have handled this situation better.”
However, Rafieyan is still not pleased with how United handled the incident, especially after finding out that United refused to allow two girls who were relatives of United employees to board because they were wearing leggings. She said it “disgusts” her that United would go puritanical about girls wearing leggings, but not even raise an eyebrow at allowing an obviously drunk man to board.
I’d do one better. United CEO Oscar Munoz felt the need to issue statements in the wake of that doctor being dragged off the plane. But a woman is sexually harassed on a plane in full view of her daughter, and at the hands of a man who should have never been allowed on the plane in the first place? Priorities.
(featured image courtesy Jared and Corin, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)