In-flight chats are a mistake.
There’s a feeling of something lightly magical happening when you board your flight and actually find yourself falling into a pleasant chat with your seatmate. There’s something about having the good fortune to reach your destination sharing a few moments of genuine connection with one’s fellow traveler that feels like it came out of an age of travel that only existed in vintage TWA posters.
No doubt it was this experience that the makers of seatback messaging systems were hoping to replicate. Instead, one passenger recently found the experience being replicated on the seatback chat was just was the type of sexual harassment that’s already all-too-common in women’s lives—except in a confined space in the sky.
Jessica Van Meir tweeted about her recent experience flying on Virgin Atlantic when several other passengers utilized the in-flight chat system to send her sexually threatening messages.
Yesterday I was on a @VirginAtlantic flight, and I unexpectedly received these sexually harassing messages on my screen (I was in 55C).
The flight attendants were helpful & dealt with it swiftly.
— Jessica Van Meir (@jessicavanmeir) October 6, 2019
When she informed the passengers that she’d be alerting Virgin, she received the response “currently you are now in the danger zone.”
“It felt very threatening. It felt like they were intentionally targeting me and trying to intimidate me,” Van Meir told Inside Edition.
Van Meir, who works for a law firm where she specializes in cases that involve sexual assault and harassment, alerted the flight attendants who she said “dealt with it swiftly” and spoke to the passengers responsible for sending the messages.
“What matters to me is not going after these guys,” Van Meir wrote. “But making sure they understand why it was harmful.”
Afterward, she received an email from Virgin Atlantic where the representative apologized and said they were reviewing their systems “to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
According to CNN, Virgin is in the process of phasing out its seat-to-seat messaging system. A Virgin spokesperson told CNN, “This is the first time we’ve ever been made aware of unwanted messages appearing through the chat system.” Which, given the frequency with which brazen face-to-face sexual harassment happens, seems statistically impossible.
What to Do if You’re Harassed at 30,000 Feet
Sexual harassment is a terrifying prospect in every context. And the choice between ignoring said harassment and confronting it is an impossible tightrope to walk. Both responding to and ignoring one’s harassers can result in the perpetrators escalating to more threatening or simply violent language and/or actions. Now imagine making that calculation while you’re trapped in a confined space.
If you do find yourself find in the specific context of being on a flight that has the seat-to-seat chat function, you do have the option to decline any incoming chats. But even if curiosity gets the better of you, that doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing by not ignoring the incoming messages. As Van Meir pointed out on Twitter, “I would rather know if someone is sending me sexually harassing messages and be able to report them.”