Flying Solo: Refusing To Become A Statistic
This time last week I was on my way home from home. Flying back to Singapore after a week in the UK. I can’t decide if that journey happened yesterday or ten years ago. It feels like both. When I close my eyes I’m immediately back to Monday night somewhere in the sky over Europe. and then when I open my eyes I swear that journey and the week since has robbed me of several years of my life. It’s surreal, really. And the post you’re about to read, this post that I’ve written and re-written many times now, is not the post I ever thought it would be. It never crossed my mind that I would EVER, ever be giving a first hand account of the danger of solo travel as a woman. It’s unthinkable, actually. I thought I’d be writing a post gloating about my first child free flights since 2010, and how spa-like economy can feel when you don’t have travel weary little kids hanging onto you and off you for fourteen hours straight. And one of my four flights was like that. Another was like sardines in a can, but uneventful. Then there was the flight that ended with an arrest. And my final flight I spent too terrified to close my eyes for most of the ten hours. As anecdotal evidence goes, it’s not exactly looking great stats-wise, is it? The flight was a busy one on a Monday late afternoon. It was part one of my journey back to Singapore, and the shorter leg. I was in the middle seat of three. To my left was an older English lady, retired probably, definitely older than my mum. And to my right was a youngish man, half Turkish half Bulgarian, maybe around my age. Then there was the aisle. Across the aisle were two burly northern blokes, all tats and muscles, but - and I don’t know why I made an effort to pay attention to them when I first got on, a premonition perhaps - they had a calmness about them. And then to the far right, in the window seat, was another lady who I didn’t much notice initially. In economy seats it’s near impossible to completely ignore your seat neighbours. I mean, those seats are COSY. So the English lady and I immediately chatted to one another, she gave me her old copy of The Daily Mail, I asked for a pillow for her. You know how it goes. Whereas the man on the other side of me, even from the start, seemed jittery and uneasy. Actually, he made ME feel really uneasy. He was also quite big, not as in "big" meaning fat, I mean as in tall. His legs were cramped in, which I kind of felt sorry for him about. So I was maybe a little more forgiving then, on reflection, I should have been when it came to his man spreading. I don't know, maybe I'm finding excuses for him, or putting some blame on myself?
It was a a fairly quick flight, about four hours, so our evening meal was served quite promptly after take off. Lady to my left had red wine, I had a coke, and he had something alcoholic that was mixed with water and turned cloudy. Arak maybe? Or Ouzo? I don't know, but he knocked back a couple of those in quick succession. Maybe he was a nervous flyer? Anyway, somehow he just kept on going. We were only a few rows from the back of the plane, where the alcohol was stored, and where the only two economy toilets were. So he made himself known to quite alot of passengers it turns out with his constant getting up for refills, barging his way through the toilet queue. The booze made him ballsy though. Like SERIOUSLY. I mean he asked me for my number. And then pestered me for it. And then he asked me to have sex with him. On the plane. Just quickly. All in broken English with some wild hand gestures to emphasise EXACTLY what he meant. In case I didn't know. But, I definitely did. And plugging my headphones into fake watch a crappy film, eyes fixed firmly on the screen, offered me absolutely no relief from his advances either. He would just unplug my headphones for me.
Now I'm British. I don't like to cause a scene. So his requests were politely, but firmly, turned down. Over and over again. Until he was literally leaning over me to the point that I was then leaning over the lady on my left. That was when we both knew he was trouble. Aren't women patient and forgiving? We, or I, should have known as soon as he decided my leg space was also his leg space.
And then it all took a much more invasive turn. He didn't have a firm grasp of the English language but MY GOD did he have a firm grasp of my legs. And I can still smell and hear his face right next to mine as he started blowing into my ear, presumably to make me turn my head toward him to tell him to stop. Again. Only for him to start trying to kiss me instead. At his point, and with the seatbelt lights back on ready for the descent, something inside me snapped. Enough was enough, I felt scared and violated, and I knew that this guy, fulled by airline booze and an ego, was not going to stop.
I don't clearly remember the next moments. It happened so quickly. But I do remember my shouts and cries for him to stop and not touch me were the catalyst. The two burly guys across the aisle from us sprung, literally SPRUNG, into action. The drunk guy was hauled off me, I was out of my seat and tumbled into the row across, and one of the men took my place, and another sat next to me. So I was now in the middle seat of the row opposite, with a very shocked woman on my right who had somehow managed not to notice anything untoward during the flight until the seat swapping kerfuffle. And then on my left was one of the burly guys. A bodyguard it turns out, on his way back to work in Baghdad. Then drunk guy was back in his seat, having had a firm talking to (again) by cabin crew. He was also flanked on his other side by the other burly man, another bodyguard on his way back to work, who had put himself in between drunk guy and the elderly lady. The plane then circled above the city a couple of times, and the bodyguard on my left kept me talking, ignoring the cursing and insults being thrown my way. There's a reason why some people go into particular professions I suppose. He was amazing. Immediately soothing, easy to talk with, and the most reassuring presence in a moment of absolute chaos.
I wish I could say that was it. That's what happened on my awful flight. But drunk guy wasn't done yet. Something riled him up again, and then the fists came flying. But he picked the wrong people to try and have a bust up with. And, obviously, the wrong time and place. The two bodyguards had him on the floor at the back of the plane in a heartbeat. The last I saw of the drunk guy was him being taken out sideways as his fist was coming towards me. It's surreal. And I won't pretend that I was even a bit brave in the situation. I cried like a baby. And I shook violently. Was it adrenaline or just terror? I don't know. But someone else carried my handbag off the plane for me, and two other people kept me upright. I remember that much. The kindness of strangers is unrivaled sometimes. As I was being helped off, the Police were already on board. It was only ever going to end one way for the drunk guy. And that's his fault, and for their part, the airline's for fueling him up with free booze.
It's not over yet either. The airline have only now, a week after the flight, apologised to me. But their apology is appalling. It is this:
"Dear Ms. Emily ABBEY,
We have received your messages and we are sorry to learn about the inconvenience that you experienced during your travel with us on the (details removed).
First of all we apologize for the late reply as the file had to be forwarded to several departments in order to achieve detailed information regarding the complaint.
"Customer Satisfaction" is on the top of the list of our priorities at Turkish Airlines. İt is to emphasize that any harassment is certainly not acceptable for our Airline.
According to this we would like to underline that due to the importance of the human being factor in the sector which we serve, our prime goal is to provide comfortable and safety journey to our valued passengers from the beginning of the travel till to the end.
Foremost, we would like to let you know that all Turkish Airlines personnel, particularly our cabin crew, routinely attend professional training courses to improve their behavioral and communication skills, body language, diction and in-flight safety techniques.
In order to prevent any inconvenience that could occur during the flight, our ground staff is also trained in accordance with the Civil Aviation Regulations for implementing the necessary procedures.
Although all our staff try to minimize all inconveniences that might happen during a flight, undesirable events may occur out of our control from time to time. We do appreciate how difficult it can be to experience such an inconvenience. In such a situation the related staff had tried to be helpful as soon as possible under present conditions. We learned from the cabin crew that the related passenger was reported to the ground staff and was picked up by the police on arrival.
However, we regret that you felt uncomfortable due to this incident. Please be informed that your criticism has been conveyed to the related section in order to be taken into consideration in order to prevent similar complaints recur. The related staff has been warned in order to be more attentive while fulfilling their duty in a more customer-caring & professional way.
Since the efforts of Turkish Airlines are directed towards providing our esteemed passengers a superior level of service , our passengers' criticism and compliments are considered as the most valuable help to our efforts and incentive for our staffs' further performance.
Once again, please accept our deepest apologies that you have experienced out of control.
Customer Contact Center
TURKISH AIRLINES INC."
I'm curious to know, would YOU accept this apology? Because I'm not. It's really murky when you start googling passenger on passenger sexual assault on flights, let alone when they're (probably) the direct result of a passenger being given access to seemingly unlimited free alcohol. At least, the alcohol seemed pretty free flowing on this particular flight anyway, which the airline hasn't taken responsibility for in my opinion. This article about sexual assaults on planes often going unreported really resonates to be honest. There was little to no support offered by the airline at the time or afterwards. If I want to prosecute the man, then that's between me, him, and the police force of a country I do not live in, have no legal right to be in and do not speak the language of. The airline will not even tell me if he is being prosecuted for his drunken behaviour. I have no closure to this. And I'm not alone, far from it in fact, there are SO many news articles online of women who have been through similar and worse on commercial flights. But the excuse of "it's hard to prosecute" doesn't fly (get it?) with me because there were SO many witnesses. I can tell you their seat numbers and what they looked like, but the airline know who they were. They could choose to assist with this. But they won't, because it's not good PR is it, to admit that what they're calling "an inconvenience" to me was in fact an assault, or an attempt at, under their watch, caused in part by their alcohol.
At this point I don't know who to go to next to follow this up. The Turkish Police? The Civil Aviation Authority? I have no idea where to start, but I'm not going to stop. I won't be silenced by Turkish Airlines terrible customer service and lack of transparent policies. They can hide behind the Montreal Convention which doesn't cover airline liability for emotional damage or any molestation of a passenger that doesn’t produce physical injury. I've done my reading and research, the system is flawed, massively. And Turkish Airlines are happy to go along with that. So please think twice before booking with them. I certainly will NEVER travel with them ever again.