Spirit passenger who says a man sexually assaulted her as she slept blasts airline's response. Photo by Sourav Mishra from Pexels.
Spirit passenger who says a man sexually assaulted her as she slept blasts airline's response. Photo by Sourav Mishra from Pexels.

Passenger wishes Spirit Airlines would've handled her sexual assault incident on flight better

By Michael Brice-Saddler Time of article published Jan 23, 2020

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Tia Jackson just wanted a few more minutes of sleep.

The 22-year-old Detroit native had spent nearly all of her Tuesday morning flight from Atlanta to Detroit falling in and out of slumber. Nestled comfortably in the middle seat as the Spirit Airlines plane began to land, Jackson rested her head against her friend seated next to the window. She closed her eyes once more.

But Jackson, a junior biology major at Eastern Michigan University, said her rest was interrupted when the passenger closest to the aisle - a man she says was fidgeting throughout the flight - made light contact with her side. Before she could react, she recalled, she felt the man place his hand down the back of her pants, touching her thigh and the side of her butt. Now fully awake and privy to the unwanted contact, Jackson stood up and yelled out: "get off me!"

Jackson, who said she had been a victim of sexual assault in high school, said, "I had that feeling all over again."

"I just wish [Spirit Airlines] would've handled it better. They didn't even apologize," she told The Washington Post.

Jackson said her experience on the flight was exacerbated by the flight crew, who responded promptly when she pushed the call button for assistance. Still standing up, Jackson explained what happened and asked that the man be moved to a different seat. But the flight crew offered to relocate her instead - a decision Jackson said was unjust and would have separated her from her friend.

She refused to leave her seat, and by the time the plane touched down, neither passenger was moved.

"It was a slap in the face to have my claims that I'm making very loudly disregarded," she said. "It was embarrassing - I'm telling you this awful thing that happened and you basically allowed it to happen. The police should've been called, and nobody should've left the plane until the police came."

But the police didn't arrive, and Jackson said she watched the man who allegedly assaulted her disembark without incident. She even brought the alleged assailant to the attention of the pilot, who advised her to talk to a gate agent inside the airport.

"I felt they robbed me of the justice I could've gotten right there and then," she said. "Now it's going to be a drawn-out investigation."

In a statement, Spirit Airlines said it took Jackson's allegations seriously and commended the flight's crew for their "quick and professional assistance to address the situation." The airline explained that the flight attendants had asked Jackson to move in order to create a buffer of empty space on both sides of the man who'd allegedly groped her, rather than placing him next to someone else.

"Our flight attendants on board that flight learned of the alleged incident 18 minutes prior to landing when the guest pressed the call button and received immediate attention. Once she told the flight attendant who came to her seat, the flight attendant directed her to a different seat," the spokesperson wrote. "The cabin crew wanted to move her, as opposed to him, because the move would have left him with an empty seat on one side and an aisle on the other."

The statement continued: "By the time the guest declined to move, landing was imminent and everyone had to be seated as required by federal regulation. Law enforcement began its investigation immediately after the flight arrived."

Jackson disagrees with the airline's reasoning and said she felt the flight crew lacked compassion.

"Somebody just told you a crime was committed, why would you move the victim?" she asked. "You need to move the man who did what he did. Why would I leave my friend there alone?"

Spirit has pledged to cooperate with law enforcement in their investigation. Wayne County Airport authorities on Wednesday said the police report had not been finalized and that the FBI was handling the investigation. In a statement, FBI spokesperson Mara Schneider confirmed the agency was looking into the incident and was unable to comment further.

Jackson said her experience has caused her to research other instances of assault that took place on Spirit Airlines flights - including a similar 2018 occurrence, where a woman flying to Detroit was awakened by a man next to her. Her shirt was undone and his hand was down her unbuttoned pants.

A federal jury convicted Prabhu Ramamoorthy, the man accused in that incident, of sexual abuse on the Spirit Airlines flight. The Department of Justice said Ramamoorthy faced up to life in prison and would be deported after serving his sentence.

"Everyone has the right to be secure and safe when they travel on airplanes. We will not tolerate the behavior of anyone who takes advantage of victims who are in a vulnerable position, and we are glad the jury agreed," U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement at the time. "We appreciate the victim in this case for her courage to speak out."

Jackson says she's been contacted by the FBI, but the trauma caused by the incident has made it difficult to refocus on school and her 10-month-old son. She plans to go back to counseling.

"People don't understand that you can be affected mentally more than you can be physically," she said. "It felt like I was being assaulted all over again.

The Washington Post

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