FBI warns of increased cases of assault on flights

Elizabeth said she'd never heard of a midair assault until it happened to her.

She says she was just 16 when she was sexually assaulted onboard United Airlines flight 1695 from Seattle to New Jersey, on July 23, 2017.

"I could feel someone's hand on my leg," the now-18-year-old woman said.

Elizabeth, who asked that her last name not be revealed, said she froze in fear when the man seated next to her put his hand between her legs and groped her.

"He wasn't aware that I was awake," she remembered. "It’s such an unreal situation. People fall asleep on planes all the time."

Elizabeth was flying alone for the first time and, according to a civil lawsuit her family recently filed, her mother purchased an "unaccompanied minor" ticket for her daughter on United's website.

"I could feel his hand on the waistband of my pants, and it's like, if I don't do something now, the situation's going to escalate to something far, far worse," the teen recalled.

So Elizabeth "stood out of my seat and I was waving, like, trying to get a flight attendant to come" to her seat.

According to the lawsuit, the response of the male "United flight attendant to receiving news that an adult male passenger sexually assaulted a minor female was disappointing, to say the least."

Elizabeth said the flight attendant simply looked at the man – since identified as Dr. Vijaykumar Krishnappa --  and said, "that's not cool, dude," then moved her to another seat.

However, it was Elizabeth – not anyone at United Airlines – who sparked an investigation by calling her mother immediately after deplaning, according to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, "United Airlines did absolutely nothing to report the assault to the pilot or any form of law enforcement. United permitted Krishnappa to walk free from the plane."

"It should not have been my responsibility as a parent 3,000 miles away to report my daughter's assault," her mother said.

Because airspace is federal jurisdiction, the FBI investigated and agents had Dr. Krishnappa in custody before Elizabeth's mother arrived in New Jersey.

A similar incident involving a Massachusetts man happened on a United flight from Tokyo to Virginia in July of 2018.

Federal court documents allege George Seryogin of Watertown "intentionally touched the inner thigh" of the 19-year-old victim sitting next to him and groped her genital area through her clothing.

Seryogin told FBI agents that he had lifted the armrest between them but then fell asleep during the flight and "claimed that he had no recollection of touching the victim."

Boston 25 News reached out to Seryogin's attorneys but received no comment in return.

United also responded in that case by moving the woman's seat - but this time requested that federal authorities meet the plane when it landed.

U.S. Senator Patty Murray has established a task force to address sexual assaults and harassment onboard commercial flights. As Murray launched the National In-Flight Sexual Assault Task Force last September, she said, "If someone breaks the law, we want to be sure survivors have the support and guidance they need to seek justice."

At the same time, Alaska Airlines debuted an app on company smartphones that allows flight attendants to immediately report crimes. Terry Taylor, a 45-year Alaska Airlines veteran and head of the flight attendants' union said, "I think we're moving forward" in battling in-flight sexual assaults. "There's recognition that it's simply not OK," Taylor said.

And in April of 2018, the FBI launched its "Be Air Aware" campaign to inform the flying public that sexual assault on a plane is a federal crime. "I believe it's an underreported crime," Special Agent Bruce Reynolds said. "People are reluctant to come forward."

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Elizabeth did come forward and her attacker, Krishnappa, was identified, arrested, pleaded guilty, served 90 days in jail and was ordered back to India upon his release. But Krishnappa was one of only two people convicted in 2017 for in-flight sexual assaults despite 63 reports nationwide that year.

Elizabeth's parents say everyone should be aware of the threat.

"What I want people to know, parents -- guardians, grandparents, anybody -- paying that extra money for an unaccompanied minor does not guarantee that your child's safe," she said.  Airlines "have to do a better job."

Elizabeth herself is encouraging other victims to speak out.

"Report it. Say something. That's the problem. People don't say anything and then people don't know that it happens. I didn't know that this happens. I'd never heard of people being assaulted on a plane before it happened to me."

In response to the cases on United Airlines flights, the airline issued this statement to Boston 25 News:

The safety and well-being of our customers is our top priority. In both instances, our customer was immediately moved to a different seat when the flight attendant was made aware of the issue. We also fully cooperated with law enforcement's investigations and both perpetrators have been permanently banned from flying United. Sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, intimidation or predation have absolutely no place anywhere in our society – including in our industry and on our aircraft. Due to the litigation involved, we're unable to provide further details.