Barbadian Firhaana Bulbulia was assaulted on board a Virgin Atlantic flight from London Gatwick to Bridgetown, Barbados. Despite alerting the on board flight attendants the attacker has not been held accountable. Ms Bulbulia describes her experience as leaving her “deeply alarmed, distressed and traumatized”.
In follow up communications with Virgin Atlantic, London Office, she was offered a gift basket which was delivered to a UK address and inaccessible to her.
Firhaana is the founder of Barbados Association of Muslim Ladies. She was presented The Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2016 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
In narrating her experience Ms Bulbulia reported to directly Virgin Atlantic “During the flight I was placed in seat 29B. As you may know, this was a middle seat, with persons sitting both beside me, in front of me and behind me. Around an hour into the flight, I reclined my chair (as most people were doing). When I did this for the first time, I felt a painful and sharp force in my back stopping me from reclining my chair. At the time, I was a bit thrown off as to why this had happened. However, I chose to keep my chair upright- not thinking much of it. After we were served lunch. I got up to go to the bathroom, and reclined my chair to allow ease in getting out onto the aisle. When I returned from the bathroom, the passenger sitting directly behind me (a white middle-aged British male) said to me in an aggressive tone: “Put up your chair”. I was a bit confused by what he said and the aggressive tone in which he was speaking to me and replied with “Pardon me?” He again stated “Put up your chair”. So I asked him “Why?” He then said “You are taking up my space”, so I said to him that everyone else had their seat back. His tone became even sharper and he said “I won’t tell you again put up your seat”. Afraid and confused by his tone, I sat down and put forward my seat.”
Continuing in her complaint to Virgin Atlantic she said “I asked one of the flight attendants if I was allowed to put my seat back, as the passenger behind me told me I was taking up his space. She told me everyone had a right to have their seat back and I could recline my seat, however, advised that I wait until after tea was served to avoid any spillage. She then went to the passenger behind me to serve tea, in which the passenger complained about the reclining of seats and that his space was being taken up. Again, the flight attendant reiterated to him, that everyone had a right to have their seat pushed back and he could feel free to do the same.”
Describing the assault Firhaana complained in her letter to Virgin Atlantic “I waited until the flight attendants returned to collect the trash and then I reclined my chair. When I did this, a sharp “punch like” painful force was felt in my back, which snapped my chair back into place. I attempted to push back my chair again, and could feel the passenger behind me forcing the seat forward. After this, I felt three sharp and hard hits to my head. The passenger behind me, had leaned forward and started to hit my head with his hand. This is when I stood up and said to him “Do not touch me”. He said he told me to put my seat up. I told him that everyone has a right to have their seat back. The flight attendant would have indicated this and that he has no right to touch me let alone to hit me. He proceeded to tell me that if I push my chair back up again he will continue to do so. This is when I left my seat, and went to the flight attendant and informed her that the passenger behind me had hit me on my head.
She came with me to my seat. However, the passenger said to her immediately “I asked her politely to put up her seat, and she listened the first time, so she can listen again”. In no way was this passenger polite to me. Furthermore he hit me three times and I continuously indicated this to the flight attendant. The flight attendant, proceeded to tell the passenger, that everyone is permitted to put their seat back and continued a discussion with him on this. Again, I reiterated to the flight attendant that this passenger had hit me. This is when the passenger proceeded to tell me to “Shut up and sit down”. He said this to me five times during the course of this conversation. Several times, I asked him why he was speaking to me like this as I was not speaking to him in this manner. The elderly lady sitting next me in the window seat tried to intervene to say he should not be touching me, however, was unsuccessful.
Recalling the events in her letter to Virgin Atlantic Ms. Bulbulia said “At no point during this discussion did the flight attendant acknowledge or address the following:
- That the passenger aggressively assaulted me by hitting me on my head three times.
- At no point in time, was it recognized that this assault took place after the passenger was told by a flight attendant that every passenger has a right to recline their seat.
- At no point in time, did the flight attendant indicate to the passenger that it was inappropriate to speak to another passenger in this way utilizing language such as “shut up and sit down”.
- At no point in time was the threat to continue to treat me in this manner until I conformed to his request addressed.
Furthermore, the situation was compounded by the fact that the flight attendant seemingly justified his behaviour by stating to me that “We are in confined spaces, sometimes people’s tempers flare, let’s not be confrontational, please calm down”. However, well intentioned, this response is, it in no way an acceptable response to a passenger that has reported an assault by another passenger. The incident became so traumatizing for me, as it was clear that my report of assault was being completely disregarded- that I began to cry, and the flight attendant removed me from the situation, asking me if I wanted to be changed to the another seat.
After she removed me, and in a private setting, I indicated to her continuously, that this was not about moving seats, but about the fact that this passenger wrongfully assaulted me and that simply moving seats does not address the issue. I proceeded to explain the entire story to her, and demonstrated to her how the passenger hit me. This is when she said his behaviour was unacceptable and she would write a report. She moved me to another seat, advising me that if the passenger troubled me again, to let them know.
Once again, I felt violated and that my complete safety was not fully considered, as stating this indicated to me that precautionary measures were not in place to ensure that incidents of this nature do not take place on flights. Furthermore, it caused me to remain completely uncomfortable, vigilant and immensely traumatized for the remainder of the flight to the extent that even in the new seat, I did not recline it- although I wanted too. When I disembarked in Barbados, I was afraid that the passenger would approach me. No one accompanied me off the flight, or reassured me that the passenger would not harm me in anyway. I tried to leave the airport as quickly as possible, immensely aware of my surroundings and consistently looking for the passenger to ensure he did not get close to me.”
Firhaana said in her complaint to Virgin “This entire incident has deeply affected me, I do not feel the incident was dealt with correctly, I felt my report that the passenger had assaulted me was silenced by simply saying a report was going to be written and moving me to another seat. I do not know if the report was in fact written. No further statements were taken from me, nor was I able to validate what the flight attendant wrote in the report to ensure its accuracy.
By removing me from my seat, the passenger who assaulted me was rewarded, as he no longer had to be concerned with me reclining my seat. I felt targeted and highly violated by this passenger who clearly saw me as young visibly Muslim woman, small in stature being only 4ft 8 inches and felt entitled enough to hit me and speak in the most inappropriate and aggressive manner to me. Moreover, no one stood up for me, not even the flight attendant. I felt defenseless, unprotected and distrusting.”
INCIDENT REPORTED TO BARBADOS POLICE
Ms. Bulbulia in a post to Facebook continued to narrate her experience saying ” Since sharing this letter with Virgin Atlantic and proceeding to press charges against the passenger with local police I want to say…
1. The police I dealt with at the station here in Barbados were exceptional- particularly Sergeant Lavine. He was sensitive, empathetic and did everything possible to make me feel safe and secure throughout the process. It was no easy task to find the passenger, as all I had was a seat number and he was a visitor to Barbados, however, within a matter of days of my report he had the passenger in the station. Unfortunately, as this incident took place whilst flying and outside the jurisdiction of the court, we could not proceed with pressing charges. I was distraught. However, I learnt two things about the incident:
– The flight attendant should have alerted the captain who in turn would alert the authorities on the ground about the issue so it could be dealt with as soon as the doors were opened in Barbados- as he is classified as a ‘disruptive passenger’- this did not happen
– The passenger in speaking to the police reiterated one of the most disheartening aspects of how the flight attendant dealt with the matter: She never told him what he was doing was wrong. Of course, any person with common sense and a concept of how to treat people respectfully knows what they were doing was wrong- but it is also the airlines duty to protect their passengers.
VIRGIN ATLANTIC RESPONSE
Ms Bulbulia reported in her Facebook post ” It was with a great deal of persistence that I finally was able to first get an acknowledgment to my letter and then a call from a Virgin Atlantic representative in the UK- as it is the UK office that handles these matters. It took one week to hear from them. This entire conversation with the representative triggered me… and was a vicious cycle of me consistently feeling like I had to defend myself and repeat what happened to me, as she said things like “It is your word against his”, she discouraged me from “escalating things further”, and attempting to convince me that the flight attendant was not wrong- by saying they “can’t control passengers behaviours” and that the passenger “apologized to the flight attendant”.
By the end of this conversation I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and had to go over what happened in so much detail that afterwards, all I could do was cry. To add to the utter disrespect and lack of empathy, she offered me a “gift” for “providing feedback on my experience”. I wasn’t here to “offer feedback” –I was here to make sure that no person ever has to experience assault on a Virgin Atlantic Flight and further face emotional distress due to the staff’s lack of competence with dealing with the matter. It became apparent quickly that the conversation would go nowhere and to them it was just something they wanted to silence quickly- for me I was exhausted.
In again offering the gift, she said it could ONLY be sent to a UK or US address. Virgin Atlantic has flights to Barbados DAILY, they have an office here- yet could not arrange this gift any other way- NO… because clearly passengers from the US and UK are only worth the hassle. Eventually I gave her my cousin’s address indicating I wouldn’t be seeing her until July. She wanted to send me “flowers”- but obviously this was inappropriate so she said it will be a “hamper”. My cousin has finally received the hamper and it is a basket of perishable food items that will be impossible for her to bring to Barbados in 6 months’ time.
To the white British male in seat 30 B, who thinks he has a right to put his hands on anyone and further degrade them by telling them to “Shut-up and sit down” and has faced no repercussions for his actions except a warning by Barbadian police- Do Better.
To Virgin Atlantic, it is clear in your handling of this case, that I’m a “nobody” to you- only being able to take your flights if it paid for by an organizer of a meeting, whereas the white British male in which you have condoned his indecent and discriminatory behavior is a regular on your flight to “exotic Barbados” – Do Better”
After Virgin Atlantic recognized the negative feedback it was receiving as a consequence to Ms. Bulbulia Facebook post, they reached out to her by phone.
She reports that “We had an extensive conversation, that (what I thought at the time) was promising. I made 4 requests during that conversation and Virgin Atlantic responded today to indicate they are not prepared to take action on any of them.
These are the requests which I made with the specific responses from Virgin below:
1.CONDUCT A REVIEW OF PROTOCOLS- TO ENSURE IT INCLUDES APPROPRIATE PROCEDURES TO DEAL WITH ABUSIVE PASSENGERS
The airline should conduct a review of their protocols to address very specifically the case of abusive (not simply disruptive) but abusive passengers. The protocols for “disruptive” passengers which were applied here were very inappropriate and did not speak to the crime that took place on board the aircraft.
Procedures should see to the protection of passengers even after they depart the plane to the point of when they depart the airport itself. Due to the fact the airline did not alert security on the ground; I was put at further risk after I departed the plane as the passenger had free range and access to me in both the immigration area and baggage claim.
Lastly, let victims know their rights! I should not have learnt about my options and rights after the flight and because I chose not to let the issue rest.
2. TRAIN STAFF TO RESPOND APPROPRIATELY TO GENDER BASED VIOLENCE
Incidents like this can be triggering and if the flight attendant says or does the wrong thing (as was the case with me) it could affect the individual greatly in the long run, or even cause further damage to a healing process.
3. BLACK LIST ABUSIVE PASSENGERS
A “zero tolerance” approach should be taken for abusive passengers. Put action where the talk is- taking issues such as this “very seriously” should mean that a log of abusive passengers be generated and these passengers should not have the privilege of flying on Virgin Atlantic and putting other passengers at risk. Thus safeguarding future passengers.
4. PROVIDE COMPENSATION
I demanded full compensation for that leg of the flight- I did not initially request this but after being absolutely disrespected by being sent a perishable food hamper (that I will never get), my experience being minimized to “informing staff training” and emotional toll it has taken on me in every sense of the word. I want compensation. My experiences, my feelings and my trauma are more than a training exercise for staff.
VIRGIN’S REACTION TO CALL FOR CORRECTIVE ACTION
1.Protocols were reviewed and it is of “our opinion that nothing is wrong with our procedures.”
2.Staff do not require training on this specific issue as “they acted appropriately and within your best interest at that point in time” and she further stated that they could not specifically address the passenger about his assault and abusive language because “They must be polite to all passengers”.
3.They cannot black list abusive passengers but “what we can offer you” next I want to take their flight is ensure the passenger who assaulted me is not on the flight. (So I have to spend money with them to be assaulted again, for them to do nothing again?).
4.“Sorry for the perishable food basket but we do not feel we need to compensate you further.”
5.When asked why a senior person on the flight was not involved or spoke to me- the representative stated “You did not request this”. So a victim of assault who is in tears, visibly shaken and clear distress on your flight has to request to see a senior person… assault is a crime.
When I began to ask her very pointed questions, she stated she can no longer discuss the issue and she has to go off to do something else. Is this “taking matters very seriously”, is this truly “safe-guarding passengers”? When I said, “You are not taking action on any of my requests”, she said “thank you for pointing that out”.
Attempts to reach Virgin Atlantic for comment have been unsuccessful. This story will be updated if comment is received.