Maybe you've heard about the massive new aviation law that Congress passed at 2:52 a.m. on a Saturday, and that President Trump signed last week, literally in the middle of a key senator's speech about the Supreme Court nomination.

But you probably haven't heard from the flight attendants.

I sure did--at least, I heard from the largest union representing more than 50,000 flight attendants at United Airlines, Spirit, Frontier, and Hawaiian, among others. 

They're very glad that the bill became law. But they also seem surprised about part of what was included in it, and frankly at the whole context.

Quick background: The 2018 FAA Reauthorization bill was in the works for years. In fact, Congress had to pass the 1,200-page bill even just to keep the Federal Aviation Administration authorized and in business.

It covers a lot of stuff--from the minimum spacing between seats on commercial airlines, to $1.68 billion for hurricane relief, to a provision authorizing the government to shoot down privately owned drones.

But there are also some new rules about sexual harassment and sexual assault on commercial airlines, and that's what prompted a reaction from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

They've been working on these issues for years, and they've also proven what a lot of people probably already thought they knew:

Namely that flight attendants face a lot of sexual harassment and even flat-out assault on the job, and that many passengers do as well. A few of their surveys show that--

  • More than two-third of flight attendants say they've experienced sexual harassment on the job.
  • Fully 20 percent said they've experienced "physical sexual harassment from passengers, in the last year alone."
  • Only 7 percent of flight attendants who experienced the abuse actually report it to their employers.
  • And, 68 percent of flight attendants say they have not noticed any employer efforts over the past year to address sexual harassment at work.

Most important in the new law from the union's perspective, its president Sara Nelson told me this week, is the creation of a National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force to study sexual harassment and misconduct on airplanes. 

Wait, I'm sorry: a task force?

Sure. Because while sexual assault is a crime, obviously, victims are loathe to report it--and especially reticent to do so on a plane, where there might be few witnesses, lots of embarrassment or shock, and where they're not at all convinced that reporting it will lead to any kind of result, anyway. 

So, you need to study the whole thing first, Nelson told me, "fully reviewing the problem and understanding it, and getting all the experts in the room to put together best practices," before "creating legislation and training, and proscribing answers."

If all goes according to plan, the task force is supposed to lead to new regulations in 18 months. But in the meantime, the new law does have some teeth.

For one thing, it establishes a civil penalty for sexually assaulting flight crew, cabin crew, or anyone else on a plane (tough to believe that wasn't specifically covered before!). And, it increases the current civil penalty for interference with flight crew from $25,000 to $35,000.

Those parts are a little more surprising to the flight attendants, since they came into the bill toward the end of the process--without a lot of Congressional hearings and negotiations.

In fact, it's the speed with which things started to happen, after years of very slow progress, that Nelson said is most stunning:

To put some perspective on it, our union was essentially formed to beat back the discrimination against women on the job. We had to quit when we were 32. You couldn't weigh more than 125 pounds. All kinds of discriminatory practices. You had to be a woman! ...

When the #MeToo movement broke, it was almost jarring, to suddenly be able to say, "Yeah, this is unacceptable. We don't accept this either. And it gets in the way of us doing our jobs."

Because there just wasn't a platform to do that before. And that's why we're so excited about this moment.

Even if the final victories in passing the law had to come when nobody was still paying attention.