Don Ward, a retired pilot for USAir and American Airlines, remembers an incident during a flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Los Angeles.
A woman sleeping in a window seat reported waking with a start to find the man next to her — also apparently asleep — with his hand on her breast, Ward said. She reported it to the flight crew.
“We called it in,” said Ward, 67, who was waiting for a friend Wednesday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, en route to a golf trip. “The FBI met us at the airplane and took the guy off.”
While such incidents remain rare, the number of reported sexual assaults — any unwelcome sexual touching, from grazing to even more graphic acts — aboard airplanes has grown by nearly two-thirds in recent years, according to the FBI. Many more are believed to occur but go unreported
“These acts are felonies, which can land an offender in prison for 10 years — or, if aggravated — to life,” said Brian Nadeau, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI Baltimore field office.
Sixty-three cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to federal authorities in the last fiscal year, the FBI said. That’s up from the 38 cases reported in the 2014 fiscal year, according to the agency, which has jurisdiction to investigate crimes on airplanes in the United States.
While the FBI declined to disclose BWI-specific numbers, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, which also has jurisdiction over the airport, said that nine sexual assaults involving passengers, flight crews or both have been reported aboard planes bound for BWI in the past four years.
One has been reported so far in 2018; two were reported in 2017; four in 2016; and two in 2015, according to Cpl. Edward Bartlinski, an MDTA spokesman.
“We take these crimes extremely seriously and will investigate any brought to our attention to the fullest extent of the law,” Bartlinski said in an emailed statement.
The FBI wants to spread awareness among passengers of the growing problem, and to put potential offenders on notice, said Special Agent David Rodski, the bureau’s airport liaison at BWI.
Incidents generally happen on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark, the FBI says, and victims typically report that they had been sleeping in the middle or window seats, often covered with a blanket or jacket, when they awoke to find their seatmate’s hands inside their clothing or underwear.
Those considering sexually assaulting a fellow passenger should keep in mind that authorities have all their information, Rodski said, and, if it is reported in-flight, the FBI will be waiting with handcuffs. Offenders typically will face both state and federal charges.
“You’re going to do more than miss your connection,” he said. “It is a federal felony, it is a serious offense, and we will charge you any way we possibly can.”
Arresting and questioning offenders is only one of the reasons it is important to report the incident to the crew before landing, Rodski said. Prompt reporting also allows investigators to interview the crew and fellow passengers, whose statements can be used in the prosecution.
Flight crews are trained them in how to respond to such incidents, he said.
“We want people to hit that call button,” Rodski said.
Renee Murrell, a victim specialist with the FBI Baltimore field office, responds to such incidents at BWI, no matter what time of day or night they might occur.
First, she asks whether the victim needs medical attention. She assures them it wasn’t their fault when they inevitably ask self-blaming questions — whether they’d said, done or worn something to prompt the assault.
“The investigative attention is going to be placed on the investigation, the evidence, the offender,” Murrell said. “What we do is look back and see how that crime has impacted the victim. I am going to be exclusively talking to and helping the victim just try to heal.”
Cynthia Marshall, 36, of Baltimore, was at the airport Wednesday preparing for a flight to Cancun, Mexico. She hadn’t realized that the number of sexual assault cases on planes had increased, and she appreciated the heads-up.
“I don’t fly often,” she said. “It’s a good idea to warn people.”