FBI Los Angeles
Public Affairs Specialist Laura Eimiller
(310) 996-3343
April 25, 2024

FBI Raises Awareness About Sexual Assaults on Airplanes

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the FBI is taking that opportunity to alert the public about a serious federal crime that is on the rise: sexual assault aboard aircraft.

In each of its 56 field offices, the FBI has airport liaison agents (ALA) assigned to the nearly 450 U.S. aviation facilities that have passenger screening operations regulated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The ALAs respond to crime aboard aircraft, a violation that falls within the FBI’s special investigative jurisdiction. In larger airports including Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), multi-agency task forces are on location to investigate a variety of criminal and national security matters, from sexual assaults to terrorism and espionage.

In 2023, the FBI opened 96 cases based on in-flight sexual assault. Sexual assault aboard aircraft—which usually takes the form of unwanted touching—is a felony that can land offenders in prison. Typically, men are the perpetrators, and women and unaccompanied minors are the victims.

Crimes aboard aircraft fall within the FBI’s jurisdiction, and in the case of in-flight sexual assaults, agents describe elements of these crimes as being strikingly similar. The attacks generally occur on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark. The victims are usually in middle or window seats, sleeping, and covered with a blanket or jacket. They report waking up to their seatmate’s hands inside their clothing or underwear. Many passengers may consume alcohol or take prescription drugs to relax or sleep, and this can both lend a false sense of security and may tempt offenders who find these victims vulnerable. In addition, offenders are known to take advantage of the fact that some victims might not report an incident because they are embarrassed, don’t want to cause a scene, or may try to convince themselves the assault was accidental.

“As warmer weather approaches and the travel season commences, the FBI expects to see an increase in reported sexual assaults”, said Mehtab Syed, assistant director in charge of the FBI Los Angeles Field Office. “Flyers are urged to be aware of their surroundings and take precautions to stay safe including keeping the armrest down between you and your seatmate and requesting a seat change if the passenger next to you engages in behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable. Anyone who believes they have been sexually assaulted is encouraged to alert a member of the flight crew and contact the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or 1-800-CALL-FBI.”

Passengers are encouraged to take the following precautions before and during a flight:

  • Offenders will often test their victims, sometimes pretending to brush against them to see how they react or if they wake up. If such behavior occurs, establish boundaries, and consider asking to be moved to another seat.
  • If your seatmate is a stranger, no matter how polite he or she may seem, keep the armrest between you down.
  • If you are arranging for a child to fly unaccompanied, try to reserve an aisle seat so flight attendants can keep a closer watch on them. Minors are known targets.
  • If an incident happens, report it immediately to the flight crew and ask that they record the attacker’s identity and report the incident. They can alert law enforcement, if necessary.

Timely notification to law enforcement is key. Crime aboard aircraft is more difficult to investigate once days, or even hours, have passed following the incident since witnesses depart and recollections fade. If alerted in advance, FBI agents can be on hand when the plane lands to conduct interviews and take subjects into custody. FBI victim specialists can respond as well because victims of federal crimes are entitled by law to a variety of services. If law enforcement is not able to respond on the ground, victims are encouraged after landing to contact the nearest FBI office.

The FBI Los Angeles Field Office can be reached 24 hours a day at 310-477-6565. Tips can also be submitted online at tips.fbi.gov.