EXPLAINER: What are your rights if you are assaulted on an airplane?

What would you do if you were sexually assaulted on a plane? It’s not something many of us would have considered as we boarded our last overseas flight, but as Mamamia found out, it is worth knowing your rights. As with most international affairs, things can get complicated.

To learn what country’s authority investigates when someone is assaulted on an international flight, we spoke to aviation law expert Rowan Kimber, who tells Mamamia that there were four factors at play.

How the crime will be investigated will depend on: the country of origin, the destination, in which country the airline is based and when the assault is reported.

Listen: George McEncroe on why she created female-only driving service Shebah.

“You’ve got multiple different laws that come in to play. Whichever country the aircraft is registered to, their rules generally apply,” Kimber, who is also a pilot, says.

“For instance, Australia’s criminal code states that the criminal code will apply in each: Australia, or Australia’s territory, or an Australian registered ship or an Australian registered aircraft. Most jurisdictions have the same thing.

“If you’re on a Qantas aircraft, it doesn’t matter where it is throughout its journey, the Australian federal law will apply.”

However, Kimber adds that where the assault is reported can still be a crucial factor, as the country of departure or arrival’s local laws still might apply – depending on what stage of the journey you are at.


“Say it was an aircraft going from LA back to Sydney, if the aircraft takes off then it’s within the Californian territory, Californian law is going to apply.”

As the flight makes its way over international waters,  “for the most part” Australia’s law will apply, Kimber adds. And when the plane’s about to land back in Sydney? Then, NSW and federal law will apply.

“On an aircraft, you do have laws. It’s not a lawless territory over international waters. That sort of thing doesn’t exist.”

Flying over Australia and knowing AFP will respond is one good reason to report an assault as soon as it happens, but Kimber says there are other advantages to reporting the assault immediately.

“When you report something to the cabin crew, everything gets recorded, everything gets logged.”

“Flight crew have the power to arrest people and by reporting it to the flight crew, depending on what the incident is, they can actually do something about it. It also gives them a time and a place for it.

“Always go to your cabin crew. They’re the number one point of call when it happens. They’ll help report it to police, but when you land report it to police straight away.”

Notifying cabin crew at the “earliest opportunity” is also the first thing Australia’s Federal Police recommends.

“The victim of crime should report the matter to authorities at the earliest opportunity as it is essential to identify potential witnesses, preserve evidence and apprehend the suspect or offender,” an AFP spokesperson tells Mamamia.


They said that if the flight was landing at one of the nine major Australian airports – Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth or Sydney – the AFP would undertake the preliminary enquiries and investigation.

“And, if required, will notify the state or territory police.”

But if you haven’t reported the incident immediately, it’s still worth reporting the crime online. For help reporting an assault phone (02) 6131 3000.

Compensation claims.

Kimber explains that an international civil liability Act is in place that means victims can be compensated by airlines for assaults on board their aircraft, even if it was not the airline’s fault.

“It’s a really complicated regime,” the aviation lawyer warns. “But generally it’s considered, that if you’re sexually assaulted on an aircraft, it’s an accident.”

He recommends anyone who is assaulted on an aircraft seeks out an aviation lawyer to help them navigate what can be a complex process.

Things you can do to stay safe in the air.

You have every right to book any airline, fly any destination, sit next to any person and feel safe – victim-blaming is not the answer. But the reality is that there are a few precautions women and parents can take to better ensure their and their children’s safety.

Book with an Australian airline.

Kimber recommends flying with an Aussie airline because it’s the best way to ensure Australian law will apply.


“I would always go for Australia first… Our human rights record is brilliant. Our legislative regime is set up very well to protect victims.”

“So if you can get Australian law to apply (Australian Federal Police) is your first point of call.

“And if it doesn’t apply then the AFP will help you with where you should go next,” he adds.

But if you can’t…

..At least make sure the airline’s own country has a good human right’s record, Kimber says.

“Ideally you want to be on an aircraft that is one of the safe countries – that you know has good human right’s protection. That’s always helpful,” Kimber says.

Choose your seats carefully.

If you sit down next to someone and get a bad vibe, trust your instincts and ask if a seat swap is possible. AFP also recommends making arrangements in advance for unaccompanied children.

“Women travelling alone and unaccompanied children should take steps to ensure suitable seating arrangements are in place prior to boarding or seek alternative seating arrangement on boarding the plane,” an AFP spokesperson tells Mamamia.

Have you ever felt uncomfortable on a plane?


You can listen to Mia’s full interview with George McEncroe here.