Businesses have a duty to protect their customers from dangerous conditions, and they may be liable for damages under a theory of negligence or premises liability. Employers have a duty to protect their employees from certain dangers. These duties sometimes overlap. They could complement one another, as when a business must protect both its customers and its employees from a shared risk. At other times, an employer may have a duty to protect its employees from sexual harassment and other acts by certain customers. This type of situation may arise in any business where employees interact with the general public, but airlines present a particular risk, considering the confined space of an airplane and the duration of many flights. Recent reports on the issue of both sexual harassment and sexual assault on airplanes demonstrate the complicated legal issues that can be involved.
For airline employees, such as flight attendants, an airplane is a workplace, subject to the same laws and regulations as an office, restaurant, store, or other place of business. The fact that an airplane is mobile, meaning that the exact location where an alleged unlawful act occurred might be difficult to determine, does not prevent aggrieved employees from asserting their legal rights. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment and other discriminatory acts in the workplace, applies throughout the nation. It may also apply on airplanes owned and operated by American companies, even if they are traveling internationally. Under Title VII, an employer may be liable for sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor or manager. It can also be liable for sexual harassment by a coworker or customer, if it knows or should know about the harassment and fails to take remedial action.
Media reports illustrate incidents of sexual harassment and assault on airplanes on a fairly regular basis. These stories are often presented as further examples of uncomfortable and difficult conditions on airplanes, but they have their own distinct importance, in a legal sense, for airline employees. In one example from late 2016, an airline ejected a passenger from a flight, before takeoff, for allegedly catcalling a flight attendant during the safety demonstration. For every story like this one, it is unfortunately likely that many more go unreported.