Congress created a task force to confront the industry’s harassment problem, but advocates worry it’s tilted in favor of management.

By Justin Bachman

From Southwest’s “hostesses” in the 1970s to Hooters Air to the Vietnamese budget carrier whose flight attendants were made to wear bikinis, airlines have a long history of sexualizing the role of flight attendants. 

Their victimization continues to this day. More than a third of flight attendants said they had experienced sexual harassment over the past year, with almost one in five suffering physical assaults such as touching or groping, according to a 2018 survey of 3,500 attendants by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) union.

Last year, the #MeToo movement’s exposure of ghastly workplace behavior finally reached the airlines. As part of legislation funding the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress formed a task force aimed at addressing sexual misconduct up in the sky. Its goal was to review airline training and incident reporting so as to better protect employees and passengers.

“It needs to be that we have a zero-tolerance policy,” said Lyn Montgomery, a Southwest Airlines Co. flight attendant for the past 27 years. “You don’t get away with something in the air that you can’t on the ground.”

In November, the Trump administration put its stamp on the effort, shifting the 14-member task force under a four-person Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (ACPAC) that reports to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “The #MeToo movement seems to be making an impression in a lot of different areas,” said Judith Kaleta, the DOT’s deputy general counsel and the task force’s chair. “Organizations are putting new policies in place.”

Consumer advocates and flight attendants, however, accuse Chao of putting the task force squarely in the pocket of airline management. The DOT excluded consumer advocates and the AFA, which had focused on combating harassment, while putting a representative of an anti-regulation, pro-business group on the advisory committee overseeing the task force.

“Failing to include a genuine consumer representative with experience and expertise in consumer travel issues is yet another example of how the DOT is dedicated to the profits of the airline industry at the expense of consumers,” Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, a consumer-advocacy group, said in a statement.

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