12 Flight Attendants Open Up About Being Harassed By Pilots and Other Coworkers

By Kate Beckman, Cosmopolitan

From dealing with rude passengers to turbulence and flight delays, being a flight attendant is not an easy job. But on top of that, female flight attendants often have to deal with sexual harassment from their coworkers.

[post_ads]This culture of misconduct is widespread across the industry. In December 2017, Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, wrote a powerful op-ed in the Washington Post speaking on this pervasive issue and calling on airline CEOs to call out harassment and support employees who report it. She also shared that a survey of their union members revealed that a majority of flight attendants have no knowledge of training on the issue of sexual harassment.

Cosmopolitan spoke with 12 flight attendants working for a variety of airlines about their experiences with harassment on the job. Some of their names have been changed, because many said they fear retaliation from pilots and airlines for reporting incidents, citing that they could be blacklisted or removed from flights without pay. Here are their stories.

Emily, 39

American Airlines

I was at a hotel with the crew during a trip and the pilot that night signed us all in and handed us our room keys. When I was in my room, I heard someone knocking on my door and I realized it was the adjoining door that connected two rooms. It was the pilot. I opened the door and he came in my room with some booze and asked if I wanted a drink, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I said I wasn’t interested, and he said he could have me removed from the trip without pay for insubordination. I started to put my shoes on and told him he could remove me, and I think he got nervous because he backed off and went back into his bedroom.

During a different flight, another pilot came out of the cockpit for a bathroom break. As he was talking to me, he was looking me in the eyes in the strangest way. Then he took off his wedding ring very dramatically, put it in front of my face, then put the wedding ring in his pocket. Then he tried to lead me into the bathroom with him. I tried to laugh it off and act like he was joking, and I moved to the side so he could get into the bathroom. It was just so bizarre. There are easy ways to report harassment, but you don’t want that kind of reputation, especially because pilots can remove you from the trip for any reason.

I was in the cockpit with the captain while the first officer took a bathroom break, and ...he asks me if my breasts are real.

Taylor, 29

Virgin America

I was flying with a really senior crew and one of the women I worked with told me that the captain was known to prey on newer flight attendants, so watch out. The captain comes up to me and blatantly stares at my breasts, says hi, then leaves. On the way back, I was in the cockpit with the captain while the first officer took a bathroom break, and he asks me if he can ask an inappropriate question. Then he asks me if my breasts are real. He takes out his phone and tells me his wife just got her boobs done, and actually showed me pictures of her bare breasts. I was obviously uncomfortable, but I couldn’t leave until the first officer came back. After that, I was scared I would have to work with him again.

Lucy, 39

American Airlines

I was at a New Year’s Eve party with the whole crew, and when the clock struck midnight everyone was hugging and kissing on the cheek. I turned around to hug someone and one of the pilots kissed me straight on the mouth. I wasn’t expecting that, and he was just like, "Oh everyone does it on New Year’s," and I think he tried to kiss the other two flight attendants like that. I didn’t say anything because it’s a weird unspoken rule that you don’t report anybody, because you don’t ever want to involve management. Often both parties end up being screwed over, so you just keep that in mind.

You’re not supposed to take alcohol off the plane, but another time, the first officer asked me if I could get him some beers off the plane. We’re walking off the plane to go to our layover, and he asked if I could carry them back to the hotel so no one would notice. We go up to our rooms and there’s a knock on my door. When I open the door, it’s the first officer and after taking the beer from me, he grabs my waist and kisses me, trying to push me back into the room to make out with me. I push him away, and I’m like, dude, I was just giving you your beer. He asks me to drink with him and I said no, and then he left. The next day we were on different flights so I didn’t have to see him again.

Mariah, 31

United Airlines

I had a pilot from a different airline flying in first class. I went to take his lunch order, and he asked me if I was on the menu. I said no, but we have a great chicken salad. I walked away and later came back to take his drink order. He said he would love to drink me up. I left again and came back, and he asked if he could drink my water. I told him I wasn’t going to take his order for the rest of the flight, that he was being rude and disrespectful. He seemed taken aback because I guess he thought he was being flattering. Throughout the rest of the flight he kept looking at me and making little gestures.

Laura, 41

American Airlines

I was saying goodbye to passengers at the end of a flight, and the pilot told me he would be retiring in a few weeks. He said he had done everything he wanted to do in his career except for one thing, so I asked him what it was. He said, “I’ve never bagged a stewardess.” I had to smile as I was saying bye to passengers, so I couldn’t really call him out. I just said that was gross and didn’t look at him anymore, and we all got off the plane shortly after that.

I didn’t report it because you don’t want to be blacklisted among pilots and crew members.

Olivia, 27

American Airlines

I was working first class and the captain asked me at the end of the flight as he was leaving where I was headed next. I said we were continuing on and had a pretty long flight, about five hours. He said something like, “That wouldn’t be a long flight if it was just me and you.” I had barely talked with him, I didn’t even know his name.

There’s this one creepy, male flight attendant. He hits on women that are younger than him and he’s pretty handsy. One time before I was married, he asked me out to dinner. I said no, but the whole trip he was still really handsy. He would put his hand on my back or arm, or stand too close to me. I just kept shooting him down because he was very persistent. I didn’t report it because you don’t want to be blacklisted among pilots and crew members. Something would have to be really bad for me to report it.

Gabrielle, 30

Southwest Airlines

This was actually the first trip I had ever flown. A crew member was very touchy-feely – everything he did involved a squeeze or a grab. I told him it made me uncomfortable, which offended him a little, but he stopped the first day. It was a three day trip, and the next day he started touching me again. I told him again that I didn’t like being touched, and he yelled at me and said I thought I knew everything because I was new and if I didn’t want his help we didn’t have to talk at all. I said I appreciated the help, but he could help without touching me. Then he said the problem with the company is that they hire all these snobby, stuck up flight attendants. On the third day, he didn’t really talk to me at all. When I talked to other flight attendants months later, woman already knew who I was talking about because he had a reputation. I felt bad for not reporting it, but I was new so it would have been my word against him.

I’m very curvy and and this one pilot would make comments about my body, saying I’m very voluptuous or asking me how I fit in my dress. I was working up front and he would talk about how my uniform clings to my curves, and how I’m a pretty little thing. It made me uncomfortable, and the next day we had those pilots again so I asked my male coworker if he would switch with me. I didn’t tell him the reason, I just said I didn’t feel good.

Claire, 27

American Airlines

I was on an international trip and hanging out with three pilots. There was no harassment, and I felt safe. Later in the night, I was saying goodbye to them to meet up with another flight attendant. One of the pilots gave me a hug and touched the small of my back, but I just let it go. A few months later, I was another international trip with that specific pilot. I went out with him and a few other coworkers for dinner, and that’s when things got uncomfortable. When we first met up, he started telling me how beautiful I looked and kept touching my arm and my back. I told him to stop, and he said, “Oh, but you’re so pretty.” I tried to laugh it off, but I told him to stop again. I thought he would be able to see the awkwardness on my face, but he didn’t seem to get the hint. When we go back to the hotel, the pilot ends up being on the same floor as me. When we get off the elevator, he walks me to my room and gives me a hug but refuses to let go and nuzzles the side of my ear, and told me he had a wonderful time with me. He acted like nothing happened the whole trip back. We all know how to report stuff like that, but most of us never will.

He touched my hand and put it on his leg and said, “This is my wallet, but don’t be alarmed if you feel something else.”

Alyssa, 24

United Airlines

I was on an international flight, and I ended up working the front. I was working with the lead flight attendant from the international crew who was probably in his 50s, and I noticed he was being really nice to me. I had responsibilities and he told me not to do anything, just to be beautiful. It was really uncomfortable because he switched sides with another flight attendant to work next to me. When we were working the cart, if I reached for something he would put his hand on top of mine and like caress my hand. When I had to run to the back to get something, he blocked me in the galley and hugged me and wouldn’t let go while rubbing my back. During long flights, we also have crew rest, and him and I had the same break. He tried to come behind me and give me a massage, and talked about how he wanted to date me. He also asked to see pictures of me in a bathing suit. I found out later in the flight that another flight attendant was complaining because the breaks are usually selected by seniority, and he broke the seniority rule to put me on his break so I could spend more time with him. I didn’t really call him out on it or anything because you don’t want to be in a fight with your coworkers during a long flight.

Another time, we had a layover during an international flight, and we were hanging out with another crew in the airport lounge. Everyone was drinking wine, and I noticed the captain from my crew was a little creepy. He made a comment like, “You could be as ugly as a toad, but give a woman a few martinis and you’re in.” Later, we all went out to a bar, and the captain came up to me and said he wanted to dance with me. He touched my hand and put it on his leg and said, “This is my wallet, but don’t be alarmed if you feel something else.” And he asked me if I was more attracted to him or the other pilot, both of which are in their mid-50s. While we were dancing, the other pilot actually tried to slap my butt too. I left them, and another woman working with me on the flight came up to me and said that the captain sexually harassed her, that he was touching her all over and wouldn’t stop touching her. She also told me he had taken advantage of her when she was drunk on a different layover. We left the bar, and the next day on the flight I didn’t have any interactions with him, but I think it was close to seven women that he harassed in the night before, including me. It’s just part of the culture that these things aren’t reported.

Miranda, 41

American Airlines

We had a long layover at a hotel, and the whole crew was hanging out. There was this one pilot who I guess had a thing for feet, because he spent the evening begging to give me a foot massage. I kept saying I wasn’t interested, then when he persisted, I tried to tell him I had been on my feet all day and hadn’t showered. That only made him more interested. Finally, he just pulled up a chair and grabbed my feet and massaged them in front of everyone, which was probably about 30 people. No one really said anything, so I just made up an excuse a few minutes later to escape to my room, which I didn’t really leave for the rest of the layover.

On another flight, a male flight attendant heavily flirted with me for our entire 10-hour day. At one point he hugged me from behind and kissed my neck. I elbowed him, and went to another flight attendant and asked if she could work my side of the flight. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to report him. You don’t want to be seen as a snitch. Now that I’ve been in this industry for almost 20 years, I’m finally at the point where I understand where it goes too far. Now if someone does something I think is wrong, I’ll report it.

They can say they don’t want you on their flight, or kick you off a flight, which means you don’t get paid.

Megan, 27

American Airlines

After a long day we all went out to dinner as a crew. The captain was drinking and kept trying to join the conversation between me and another flight attendant, but we didn’t pay attention to him too much. Back at the hotel, he wanted to walk me back to my room. The next day when we were getting on the plane, he touched my butt. I thought maybe it was an accident because it was a narrow space. But when we were deplaning and there was a gap in passengers, he tried to give me a hug, and when he pulled me in he kissed me on the lips. I pushed him back and he just said it was great flying with me and left the plane. It’s difficult because especially as a junior flight attendant, you don’t want to get blacklisted by reporting something. The pilots are really close-knit so they talk to each other to look out for certain flight attendants. They can say they don’t want you on their flight, or kick you off a flight, which means you don’t get paid.

During a different flight, I mentioned to a crew member how my back was stiff and he said he used to do massages and could give me one. I said I was OK, I would just stretch my back but then he gets behind me and says he’s going to do something really quick. He starts rubbing my shoulders, and I’m trying to move away from him but he’s taller than me. The other female flight attendant was oblivious to this, just getting the tea and coffee ready. Then he sniffs my hair, and I push him off. I notice him adjust himself because his penis was hard. At this point the other female flight attendant turns around and sees it, but she just laughs. I told my supervisor, and he was put on my Do Not Fly list, but nothing happened to him.

Vanessa, 38


I was on the plane and the pilot comes up to me and says, “Oh wow, you’re really pretty.” When we got back to the hotel, the pilot asks me what we’re doing tonight. I said I was exhausted, so I wasn’t going to do anything. Then he gets angry at me, like, "It’s a Saturday night, what do you mean we aren’t doing anything?" And he storms off. I thought it was strange, but it wasn’t my problem. The next week, I’m on another flight with this specific pilot. We had a passenger who was really flirtatious to the point of creepy, so I warned the other flight attendants not to say anything about where we were staying after the flight. I also tell the pilot about the passenger, and he goes, “You mean to tell me that yet another guy on this plane is trying to pick you up?” I tell him that, as the captain, I’m just trying to notify you about a passenger. He leaves the cockpit to use the restroom, and when he’s done, I returned to the cabin. My coworkers look like they have something to tell me, but don’t know how to. They finally tell me that the captain told them that I had a threesome with some guys from the trip before, and that’s why I didn’t want to go out that night. He was so mad I didn’t go out with him that he was spreading rumors about me. I go to my supervisor to tell him what happened and I have two witnesses, so he writes it up. I talked to someone from HR about it too. The next few weeks though, this pilot starts stalking my schedule, which becomes apparent when I’m scheduled on all of these flights with him. I kept switching my flights so I wouldn’t have to be with him, but one day I walk onto a flight and he’s standing there, with his arms crossed and he seems really angry. I run off the plane and say I’m not going to work that flight. They said he wasn’t even supposed to be working because there was an active investigation.

About six weeks later, HR finally gets in touch with me and said that the claim was not verifiable, so they couldn’t do anything. I asked how it wasn’t verifiable when I had two witnesses, and she said she was not at liberty to say. No one was found at fault in the investigation. I actually had a different pilot friend who flew with the captain, and apparently the captain had been talking about how he was out to get me, and he was going to get me fired. The only reason I didn’t have to continuing dealing with him was because he transferred to a different airline a few months later. I’m glad I reported it, but I’m not surprised that nothing came from it. Pilots are more valuable to keep around than flight attendants. We’re the ones that are easier to replace.

When reached for comment on these stories, a representative for American Airlines responded by saying: “In recent weeks American has strengthened our commitment to diversity and inclusion at our airline to ensure all customers feel welcome, and all team members feel respected at work. ...We are not turning a blind eye. We recognize harassment exists and we are acting to support our team members, including providing enhanced training. In addition, we will make it easier for our team members to report – and ultimately address – concerns. If team members see something or experience unwelcome advances, they deserve the best internal oversight and resolution processes we can offer.”

Alaska Airlines, which owns Virgin America, said that the safety of their guests and employees is their top priority, and they don't tolerate sexual misconduct. "Every Alaska Airlines employee badge includes a 1-800 Ethics and Compliance Hotline, printed on the back that employees can use to report incidents that occur while they are working," their statement read. "We are also working with guests, labor partners, and experts in this area to continue to update training, policies, and related employee communication to ensure that crew members have the tools they need to prevent, identify and address sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. For example, we will begin using scenarios of sexual assault in our crew training this year."

United Airlines condemned sexual harassment on their aircraft, and stated: "All United employees receive training on our harassment and discrimination policies and are specifically educated on several channels in which to raise complaints, including a helpline which is available 24 hours a day where employees can raise their concerns anonymously. Our policy explicitly states that retaliation will not be tolerated. If concerns of retaliation are raised, those too will be investigated and addressed. However, we cannot address offensive or harassing conduct that is not brought to the attention of management. We strive to ensure that our process to raise complaints and concerns is straightforward and not burdensome, and we’ll continue to work with all of our employees to ensure that everyone feels empowered to report issues when they occur."

Southwest Airlines said they prohibit all kinds of harassment, and responded: "Per Southwest’s policies, Employees who believe they have been subjected to workplace harassment or become aware of harassment based on these protected categories are to immediately report these matters and Southwest will conduct an objective, prompt, and confidential investigation. Southwest wants Employees to feel empowered to come forward in these situations without fear of retaliation."

And JetBlue commented that the safety of their customers and crewmembers is a top priority, and they take reports of harassment seriously, saying: "While we may not be able to offer any specific details on any incident or investigation, we have an open door policy and welcome any crewmember to talk to a leader, call our corporate security team or confidential business integrity hotline with any concerns they may have. ...While these incidents are rare, our crewmembers, responsible for the well-being of customers and fellow crewmembers, are trained to handle a number of situations, and encouraged report any incidents to their crew or base leadership and/or notify local authorities if warranted. We regularly evaluate our procedures to incorporate best practices for handling these matters."

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