BALTIMORE — The FBI is warning about a serious federal crime that’s on the rise, even though many incidents are probably not being reported: sexual assaults.
While sexual assaults on airline flights are still relatively rare, agents said, the number of reported cases has increased in recent years.
In 2014, 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault were reported to the FBI. Last year, that number increased to 63 reported cases, but officials believe the crimes are significantly under-reported.
There have already been 10 reports of sexual assaults on flights that landed at BWI Marshall Airport in 2018, sources said. Those numbers are in line with what other airports around the country have been seeing.
The attacks usually involve inappropriate touching ranging from “grazing a body part to even more graphic acts,” said Brian Nadeau, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore division.
Often the assaults happen on redeye flights after the cabin lights are darkened.
“Many of the victims are seated in middle or window seats, are covered by a blanket or a jacket, and oftentimes are asleep,” Nadeau said. “We find offenders will often test their victims, sometimes brushing up against them to see how they will react or if they wake up.”
Additionally, many offenders know victims may not want to report an incident.
“They don’t want to cause a scene, be embarrassed, or they see no law enforcement nearby,” he said.
As part of an awareness campaign, the FBI is encouraging anyone who believes they’ve been assaulted to immediately tell a member of the flight crew.
“Law enforcement can greet that aircraft, so we can detain both the subject, the victim and the witnesses as well,” said David Rodski, an FBI special agent assigned to BWI Marshall Airport.
He added a plane is the worst place to commit a criminal act.
“Onboard an aircraft, we’ve got the manifest. We will have your name as it appears on your driver’s license and your date of birth,” he said.
Those who face charges could be prosecuted under one of several felony statutes.
Even if charges cannot be brought, Rodski said, the FBI will “index” the suspect in its system.
“Anybody that we talk to, anybody that we do an investigative activity on, we’re going to keep track of. So especially if we get a repeat offender, we’re going to know about them,” he said.