Women passengers rally to protect teenage girl from airplane ‘creep’

Joanna Chiu is praising the women bystanders and airline staff who helped protect a teenage girl from the man who was harassing her.

The Star Vancouver bureau chief was on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver when she heard a man behind her complaining about having to sit in the middle seat.

But later, when a teenage girl travelling solo sat next to him, Chiu says the complaints stopped.

She wrote about the incident on Twitter and in the Star, and told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams what happened next. Here is part of their conversation.

When you were sitting on the plane, what did you hear that made your ears perk up?

I thought it was strange that suddenly he seemed very happy to be where he was in the middle seat, and it seemed like it was because a teenage girl had come up and sat beside him in a window seat.

He kept asking about her school, what she was studying, what she wanted to be when she was older.

It definitely raised some flags, so I started listening pretty carefully.

Right, and then the conversation progressed into a kind of inappropriate area?

He kept saying that, oh, she sounded so smart for her age, and he asked about her favourite foods and he kept saying that, “Oh, I’m going to give you my number, I want you to call me, and I want to take you out to eat.”

She was just ignoring all of this, obviously trying to be friendly, but not wanting to make plans to see him.

It kept going on and on and, eventually, I finally stood up and confronted him because he was asking for a dirty photo from her.

What did he do when you confronted him?

He acted like he didn’t hear me and he just stood up and went to use the washroom in the back of the plane.

And what happened when he was in the washroom?

A woman in a row seated behind them, she acted independently. I don’t think she heard me speaking with him.

Her plan was to talk to the teenage woman directly and check in with her and ask if she was comfortable, and [say] that she was just behind them and available for support if the teen needed it.

The teenage woman looked relieved to be having this support.

After … I went up and grabbed a flight attendant and told a flight attendant about what was happening.

And did they take the complaint or the concern seriously?

I was quite impressed at how quickly they acted.

This is all happening while this man was in the back of the plane in the washroom, and in that time, the flight attendants all worked together and they collected other witness testimonies and they checked in with the teenage girl and they decided to ask the man to move, to leave his seat.

He resisted being moved. He was yelling and shouting. And he was shouting at me, because at this point I was also standing up and watching what was going on. He was swearing at me.

He had asked to see [the flight attendants] higher-up, and she said that, “I’m the boss and this is really serious and we could land the plane if you keep acting this way.”

Is this something you had dealt with when you were younger and traveling alone?

The first time I traveled to Vietnam on a school trip, on the way back … a man next to me was really flirtatious, kind of accusing me of flirting with him when I was confused because I thought I was just having a normal conversation with him.

And the second time I traveled from Montreal, a man actually kissed me without my consent, and I was so shocked I just froze. I was still a teenager at the time.

On Twitter you mentioned you were going to contact this man’s employer to tell them about his actions. Have you had a response? Have you done that?

He told the young woman his name. He also told the woman where he worked. And it’s a pretty big Canadian company, so I’m going to be sending my Twitter thread to to the company and letting them know the details.

And what about the airline? How has it it dealt with this man?

They handled it so professionally, I felt, because they also kept giving me updates about what they were doing. They said they had made a report that they were going to keep a file in this person so they will know the next time he flies.

And when we deplaned, a security official was waiting for him and took him aside.

And how did he look?

On the plane, when he was being confronted by a bunch of women, he was, like, really dismissive, angry, like trying to aggressively shut us down.

But, you know, when the security guard was talking to him, he looked really nervous.

What do you hope comes out of sharing this story?

I actually struggled whether to share the story because this is something that happened to a teenage girl. I decided to share it and to remove any potentially identifying details because I think this is, in a way, a universal experience of harassment.

So I think it’s partly a public service for people to have this discussion.

Like, what can you do on the plane? What are the special safety risks? And what can bystanders do on public transportation in general when we know sexual harassment happens often?

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