Getting the middle seat on an airplane is never fun—you’re cramped, uncomfortable and always fighting for elbow space on the arm rests (FYI, travel etiquette dictates that the arm rests are the middle seat’s domain—it’s only fair).
But when you’re a woman traveling solo, sitting in the middle seat can be more than just uncomfortable, it can be dangerous. That’s why the New Delhi-based airline Vistara began the Woman Flyer service.
The Woman Flyer service offers preferred seating in addition to assistance with baggage and transport to female passengers traveling alone in India, a country that the U.S. government advises female travelers against visiting solo.
The Woman Flyer service is free, but it must be booked via email at least 72 hours before flying time, and any taxi fares are the passenger’s responsibility.
“Our staff is equipped to help women travelling alone,” Sanjiv Kapoor, Vistara’s chief strategy and commercial officer told Bloomberg. “This service is a sincere effort to ensure peace of mind of our women customers.”
Kapoor said the service was created after Vistara employees reported seeing women seeking assistance at the airport, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to expand it to other airlines as well. Sexual assault on airplanes has long plagued the industry and is often reported in the media, but there are few protocols in place.
“Typically we’ve found that in any situation where the airlines are asked to address something unpleasant, they’re reticent to do so,” Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told Condé Nast Traveler in an interview earlier this year.
And the problem might be much bigger than anyone can say, thanks to convoluted data. According to an FBI spokesperson, 57 in-flight sexual assault cases were investigated in 2016, up from 40 cases in 2016.
But it’s important to keep in mind that there could be a number of unreported incidents; the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 68 percent of victims do not report the crime.
For now, though the issue is rampant, at least women who travel on Vistara will have someone looking out for them—hopefully the trend will spread to other airlines.
As for American citizen traveling in India, the State Department lists the following warning about sexual harassment in India on its website:
“Sexual harassment can occur anytime or anywhere, but most frequently has happened in crowded areas such as in market places, train stations, buses, and public streets. The harassment can range from sexually suggestive or lewd comments to catcalls to outright groping. The Government of India has focused greater attention on addressing issues of gender violence. One outcome has been greater reporting of incidences of sexual assault country-wide, and Indian authorities report rape is one of the fastest growing crimes in India. Among large cities, Delhi experienced the highest number of reported crimes against women. Although most victims have been local residents, recent sexual attacks against female visitors in tourist areas across India underline the fact that foreign women are at risk and should exercise vigilance.”
What do you think: Would you use this service if traveling alone on an airline? Do you think U.S. airlines should follow this Indian airline’s example and provide better protection for women traveling solo?