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Sexual assault on airplanes carries federal penalties

Sexual assault on a commercial airplane is a federal crime that can carry a two-year prison sentence. It's becoming more common -- or at least more commonly reported. In the past four years, there's been a 30 percent increase in the number of cases of sexual assault aboard airplanes under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Just last month, federal prosecutors announced that they had charged two men in two different instances of alleged assault. One alleged incident occurred on a Norwegian Airlines flight traveling from London to the U.S. in January. A woman says she fought off the advances of a fellow passenger for hours. After dozing off, she says she awoke to find him assaulting her. The man reportedly told authorities that he didn't touch the woman.

The second alleged incident occurred on an Alaska Airlines flight in March. A woman said that a man two seats away in her row moved into the empty seat next to her and began fondling her. The man reportedly acknowledged the touching, but said the woman had reciprocated. He said that he'd been drinking on the flight.

While these women, both of whom are in their early 20s, were passengers, many flight attendants report being subjected to unwanted comments and touching by passengers. In one recent survey, almost 20 percent of flight attendants reported being touched inappropriately in the past year.

An industry trade group said that airlines have "well-defined processes and procedures in place for crew members to report observed and/or reported criminal activity that occurs on board the aircraft to the F.A.A. and appropriate law enforcement authorities, who are responsible for recording such incidents and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of offenders."

The FBI encourages victims as well as witnesses to report assaults to airline personnel during the flight or after landing. There's also pressure on airlines to do more to curb sexual assaults in the air.

Airline travel is stressful. People are often in uncomfortable proximity to each other. On long flights, passengers away from home and loved ones are sleeping next to people they don't know. Add alcohol, and it's not surprising that sometimes people behave in a way they normally wouldn't or that there are misunderstandings.

However, an accusation of sexual assault on an airplane can have serious consequences. Don't try to deal with the matter without experienced legal guidance.

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