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Federal Officials Warn Of Increased Sexual Assaults On Passenger Flights

As arriving passengers find their baggage, a sign advises visitors of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport to be aware of sexual assault aboard flights. Federal authorities are conducting an awareness campaign of what they say is being reported more frequently.

BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) - Federal officials are launching an awareness campaign about sexual assaults happening aboard passenger flights.

Crimes happening aboard aircraft such as commercial jets fall under federal jurisdiction. Monday morning inside the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, federal law enforcers joined Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority representatives to speak of one crime in particular. It's a crime they say is being reported more often in recent years.

"There have been more sexual assaults in-flight reported than ever before," said Gary Loeffert, Special Agent-In-Charge with the Buffalo Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "In 2014, there were 38 cases of in-flight sexual assault reported to the FBI. In 2017, that number increased to 63 reported cases."

Sexual assaults aboard an aircraft, according to Loeffert, is any unwanted sexual touching, from grazing a body part to more graphic or direct acts. Most cases happen, he said, on longer flights, when the cabin lights are darkened, including overnights. Many of the victims are seated in middle or window seats, are covered by a blanket or jacket and often times asleep.

"Offenders will often test their victims," he continued. "Sometimes brushing up against them to see how they react or if they wake up. "Do not give them the benefit of the doubt. If such behavior occurs, reprimand the person immediately and consider asking to be moved to another seat."

The NFTA is distributing information to its passengers. US Attorney James P. Kennedy says two recent sexual assault cases aboard airliners involved Western New York defendants. Last year, a Lockport man was charged with exposing himself and performing a lewd act while aboard a flight to Buffalo. Earlier this month, an Orchard Park man pleaded guilty to forcibly touching a woman on a flight last December.

Kennedy and others believe more incidents have simply gone unreported.

"If you're a victim or witness of such behavior, report it immediately," Kennedy said. "Typically what happens in such an instance, the flight crew will call ahead to the NFTA Police. They will contact the FBI who, in turn, will contact our office so that when the plane lands, we can respond."