When a 17-year-old Bollywood actress took to social media this week alleging she was sexually assaulted on an airplane, she appeared to catch the airline industry off-guard.
Her allegations — denied by the man accused of the assault on a domestic Vistara flight in India — triggered online outrage and prompted a rare police investigation.
The incident, coming shortly after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randi, a Silicon Valley executive, said via social media that she had been a victim of sexual harassment on an Alaska Airlines flight, highlights a risk to airlines: they need to do more than just respond once an incident goes public and their brand comes under fire.
"It's a global issue and every country has to deal with the fallout," said Saj Ahmad, a London-based analyst at Strategic Aero Research. "Being prepared to address passenger concerns rather than being reactive to social media complaints will arguably help address these problems in real time."
Most people Reuters contacted about in-flight sexual misconduct, against passengers and crew — including airlines, flight attendant unions and airline training consultants — said incidents are vastly under-reported.
Last year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airlines globally reported just 211 instances of "inappropriate sexual behavior". That's among 3.8 billion passengers on more than 40 million flights.
In a statement, IATA said fewer than half those cases were reported to the authorities, which is why there are so few police investigations.
"Victims are required to press charges, the airline can't do that for them," said Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the U.S. Association of Flight Attendants. "We believe under-reporting occurs."
Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said the IATA data needs to be viewed with caution "as event descriptions are not always standardized" and there are "significant variations in the level of voluntary reporting by airlines."
"With regard to incidents involving sexual harassment, ranging from verbal intimidation to actual physical assault, these are relatively rare, but always taken seriously," he said.