By Alana Wise and Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Many U.S. flight attendants lack the training in how to deal with complaints of on-board sexual harassment, an industry union and Democratic lawmakers say, raising questions about whether airlines are prepared to protect passengers from predatory men.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight this week when Alaska Airlines promised to investigate a complaint by Randi Zuckerberg, a Silicon Valley executive and sister of Facebook Inc CEO Mark Zuckerberg, that a male passenger seated near her made lewd sexual remarks to her.
Reuters could not independently verify Zuckerberg's allegation. Alaska Airlines did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Friday.
Zuckerberg's complaint comes at a moment of reckoning in the United States over sexual harassment, with nearly daily headlines about rich and powerful men in entertainment, politics and media being felled by complaints of impropriety or worse.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which represents employees of Alaska Airlines and several other carriers, said some airlines have guidelines specific to dealing with accusations of passenger-on-passenger sexual misconduct. But those policies are rarely highlighted and staff are often unaware of any specific guidance, it said.
Last year, at the request of the U.S. Congress, the group surveyed its members on their awareness of guidelines for dealing with accusations of sexual harassment and assault and found that more than half of the nearly 2,000 respondents had no knowledge of any specific policies.
"This is different than if someone punches you in the face,” AFA spokeswoman Taylor Garland said. "There can be shame associated with it. It's just a very unique crime."
Democratic lawmakers in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate have complained for more than a year about a lack of guidance given to airlines and their flight crews on how to deal with sexual harassment.
Senators Bob Casey and Patty Murray, among others, wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in October last year urging them to do more to track incidents and to strengthen federal rules and guidelines. They also introduced a bill this year mandating better tracking and clearer rules, but it has not become law.
"It's clear this Congress needs to act sooner rather than later to truly address this issue and make sure survivors get the support and help they deserve," Murray said in a statement on Friday.
A committee on in-flight sexual assault formed earlier this year by the U.S. Justice Department met as recently as June, the FAA said, but declined to give details of any proposed guidelines.
While airlines did not provide a number of complaints, the problem of onboard sexual misconduct is not new, even if its frequency is not well tracked.
There have been a handful of successful prosecutions in recent years against people caught sexually harassing other passengers, but they typically involve physical contact.
In 2015, a Catholic priest who groped a sleeping woman on a U.S. Airways flight was sentenced to six months in federal prison after being convicted of abusive sexual contact.
In 2016, a woman told the New York Times that President Donald Trump had groped her during a flight to New York around 1980, when she was 38. Trump denied the woman's claims, telling the newspaper "none of this ever took place."
The policy for any potential criminal behavior onboard a flight, including acts of alleged sexual misconduct, is to reach out to law enforcement officers, who will meet the plane at the gate upon landing to investigate the incident.
Airlines have different policies and training in place to deal with passenger disruptions.
United Airlines said it encourages customers to report incidents of harassment to crew. American Airlines said its staff are trained to deal with all matters of passenger disruptions the same way, including separating involved passengers, and depending on severity, possibly diverting the flight to a different airport to summon law enforcement.
The FBI said there was an increase in reports of sexual assault on aircraft in 2016, when it opened at least 58 investigations, compared with 40 in 2015, the New York Times reported. The bureau did not respond to requests for more recent data.
Verbal sexual harassment as described in Zuckerberg's complaint falls into a legal gray area, said John Banzhaf, a public-interest law professor at George Washington University.
Even so, public opinion, not legal statutes, may shape how airlines respond to the alleged incident.
In April, United faced international backlash after a video surfaced of a 69-year old passenger being forcibly removed from a parked plane to make room for additional flight crew. Afterwards, some airlines changed their policy on overbooking.
But policing speech, even if it is highly offensive, may be more tricky, Banzhaf said.
"The law basically starts off with the premise that simply saying nasty things, propositioning women and so on by itself is not even a civil tort, much less is it a criminal action," he said in a telephone interview.
But Thomas Demetrio, who represented the passenger removed from the United flight, questions whether, in the Zuckerberg incident, Alaska Air staff erred in providing more alcoholic drinks to the man she said was harassing her, according to her account.
"They owe Ms. Zuckerberg the highest duty of care and that includes protecting her from an unruly seat mate," Demetrio said in a telephone interview. "It's no different than any restaurant or bar. They're supposed to know when to cut a guy off."
(Reporting by Alana Wise in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Dan Whitcomb and Ben Klayman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)