Assault in the sky: FBI warns travelers about sexual assaults on planes ahead of busy travel season

Local News

5 million passengers will travel in and out of the Buffalo airport every year. As thousands head to the Buffalo Niagara Regional Airport to fly out for Thanksgiving, the last thing on anyone’s mind is being  sexually assaulted on a flight. 

But it is happening. 

Last year the number of sexual assaults on planes had doubled, and the FBI doesn’t know why. 

Three cases happened on flights to Buffalo. 

It’s been almost one year since Katie Campos was assaulted onboard a United Airlines flight from Newark airport home, to Buffalo.

Her story went viral on national media 

She said, “He grabbed my upper thigh like, in the crotch area, and he grabbed it pretty forcefully.”

She told the flight attendants on board what happened, but says they didn’t know what to do.

They moved her to another seat, but her abuser was within reach. She says the touching continued. 

 “They didn’t protect my safety or those around me, and I don’t think that’s a good excuse,” Campos said. 

On Tuesday, Campos faced Michael Hildebrand, 50, from Orchard Park in federal court. 

He pled guilty to the assaulting Campos on that United flight last year. 

A federal judge sentenced him to 1 year probation, and a $2500 dollar fine. Hildebrand’s Attorney says his client was drunk and spent $180 dollars on booze that day. 

George W. Gast, NFTA Police Chief said, “Most of the incidents that we have here, are alcohol fueled, if there’s one common denominator in the incidents we’ve had here, that’s the common thread.” 

The NFTA Police Chief says they are the “first responders” when sexual assaults happen in the air, waiting on deck when a plane lands, to make arrests and conduct interviews.

But crimes on board fall within the FBI’s jurisdiction. Maureen Dempsey with the Buffalo office of the FBI said, “That’s federal airspace- anything that occurs on that plane is considered a federal charge, and it will be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Reported cases of sexual assaults on planes rose from 38 in 2014 to 63 in 2017.

And still many go unreported. 

The U.S. Attorneys Office says there are three sexual assaults under investigation in Buffalo’s district airspace.

That’s in just the past year and a half. Two, including Hildebrand’s case have been prosecuted, one is pending. 

Dempsey said, “One was an exposure case where the individual exposed himself on a flight. He was also arrested, he was charged. That qualifies under the federal guidelines.”

After seeing  assaults on the rise the FBI launched this campaign called, “be air aware.” The idea is to keep you informed on what to do if you become a target.

“The FBI has seen children as young as 8 assaulted on these flights.”

Since the campaign launch, the numbers have actually gone down: From 63 reported assaults in 2017, to 39 in fiscal year 2018. 

Dempsey said, “Maybe what they thought they could get away with, they couldn’t get away with anymore. So maybe the numbers went down.”

In most cases, when assaults are immediately reported to the flight crew, law enforcement on the ground will be notified and will be waiting to respond when the plane lands. If law enforcement is not able to respond on the ground, victims are encouraged after landing to contact the nearest FBI office.

The attacks generally occur on long-haul flights when the cabin is dark. The victims are usually in middle or window seats, sleeping, and covered with a blanket or jacket. They report waking up to their seatmate’s hands inside their clothing or underwear.

Here’s what the FBI recommends you do, if you’re traveling alone and feel vulnerable:

– sit in an aisle seat, you’re closer to the flight attendant and seen better
– if you’re traveling with a minor put them in the aisle seat
– don’t cover yourself with your jacket or your coat 
– stay alert and stay awake if you’re flying alone 

Over the past year, many women including Campos have complained that flight attendants aren’t trained to deal with sexual assaults, in flight. 

The NFTA tells us, while they can’t make an arrest in the air, crews will be on the ground waiting to respond immediately. 

United Airlines has said since Campos’ incident happened, flight attendants have received increased training on how to deal with incidents like hers. 

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