Seattle teen: United Airlines 'negligent' for in-flight sexual assault

While onboard United Airlines flight 1695 from Sea-Tac Airport to Newark, New Jersey, on July 23, 2017 a 16-year old Seattle-area teen was sexually assaulted.

“I could feel someone’s hand on my leg,” the now-18-year-old woman recently told KIRO 7.

Elizabeth, who agreed to show her face on camera but 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 to attend an academic leadership conference at Princeton University and according to a civil lawsuit her family recently filed in King County Superior Court, Elizabeth’s mother purchased an “unaccompanied minor” ticket for her daughter on United’s website.

On the night of the red-eye flight, the girl “was seated in her assigned seat toward the back of the aircraft, far out of eye and earshot from the areas where the flight crew would be,” documents allege.

“United should have known not to place an unaccompanied minor passenger in a dark, crammed row at the back of the aircraft given the high number of sexual assaults that have occurred on flights,” the civil complaint claims.

Elizabeth told KIRO 7, soon after United flight 1695 took off, she fell asleep during the overnight, cross country flight and was awakened by the man seated next to her groping her.

At first, Elizabeth said, she wanted to believe the physician's hand on her body was an accident so she gave him the benefit of the doubt until “I could feel his hand on the waist band 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.

"I remember thinking I was going to have a heart attack and my first thought was, you need to be calm.
"She's on the other side of the world, hysterical," Elizabeth's mother – Paula – told KIRO 7.

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,” Paula said.

Elizabeth “never imagined being on an airplane with so many other people and flight attendants walking up and down the aisle as a place where this could happen to me.”

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

However, no arrest was ever made when Allison Dvaldze of Seattle told KIRO 7 she was sexually assaulted onboard a Delta flight from Sea-Tac Airport to Amsterdam in 2016, even though Dvaldze reported the incident to the flight crew.

“Unfortunately, the information wasn’t reported and he had changed seats so we still don’t know who he was because it was never documented,” Dvaldze said in 2016.  “He got away with it.”

Dvaldze is now suing Delta Air Lines while advocating for in-flight safety.

Meanwhile, Washington 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, told KIRO 7, “I think we’ve 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 told KIRO 7. “People are reluctant to come forward.”

Not Elizabeth. At the age of 16, she did come forward and because of her, Krishnappa was identified, arrested, pleaded guilty, served 90 days in jail, and was ordered back to India upon his release.

However, Krishnappa was one of only two people convicted in 2017 for in-flight sexual assaults despite 63 reports nationwide that year, which is why Paula wants the entire airline industry to better protect passengers.

“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 told KIRO 7.  Airlines “have to do a better job.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth wants to encourage 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.”

When asked for comment about Elizabeth’s lawsuit, Erin Benson of United Airlines Corporate Communications sent KIRO 7 the following email:

"The safety and well-being of our customers is our top priority. Our customer was immediately moved to a different seat when the flight attendant was made aware of the issue. We fully cooperated with law enforcement's investigation and the perpetrator has 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."

However, Benson would not answer KIRO 7’s questions about whether any employees were disciplined or whether any policies were changed because of what happened to Elizabeth.

More news from KIRO 7