A survey showing nearly a fifth of flight attendants experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers in the last year in the United States is relevant here, a union leader says.

And Air New Zealand says it will not hesitate to ban passengers found to have sexually harassed its staff.

Nearly 70 per cent of cabin crew surveyed in the US by their union experienced sexual harassment at some time during their career.

An Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) survey found sexual harassment included having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area "touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed, and fondled" both on top of and under their uniforms.

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Other abuse included passengers cornering or lunging at them followed by unwanted hugs, kisses and humping, said the association which has called for an end to the ''coffee, tea, or me'' attitude towards cabin crew.

In this country E tū union head of aviation Anita Rosentreter said there were likely to be similar issues here.

''What the #MeToo movement has taught us is this type of behaviour is in every part of society, at every level and all over the world,'' she said.

The unique environment flight attendants worked in made them more vulnerable to sexual harassment.

''There is that implicit subservience there and that makes flight attendants vulnerable and there's also the fact they're stuck in an aircraft 30,000 feet in the air with no escape.''

The presence of other passengers did keep a lid on abusive behaviour but not all of it.

''There are little things that are quite common, inappropriate language and comments and then we do hear about incidents that are well beyond that. For example passenger who might have touched themselves and tried to get the attention of a flight attendant to come and watch them do that,'' said Rosentreter.

Her union represents about 3000 cabin crew flying for Air New Zealand, Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia.

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The Civil Aviation Authority keeps figures for unruly behaviour - which includes bad verbal abuse and physical violence but doesn't break out statistics for sexual harassment. After a spike of 67 incidents in 2016, the number dropped to 53 last year.

Rosentreter said her union was concerned there were airlines that required their female flight attendants to wear high heals, dangerous in a turbulent environment, but also carrying the implicit message that flight attendants were there not to just serve passengers but be nice to look at.

But she said what women staff were wearing shouldn't be over-emphasised as a factor leading to unwanted attention.

Cabin crew are vulnerable in a confined cabin at altitude, says a union leader. Photo / Grant Bradley
Cabin crew are vulnerable in a confined cabin at altitude, says a union leader. Photo / Grant Bradley

Likewise passengers who had been drinking could not use that as an excuse.

''Some people do drink prior to getting on an aircraft and then continue to drink while in an aircraft and it's hard for staff to detect the level of intoxication. The point I'd make on that is that alcohol is definitely not an excuse just like what staff are wearing is never an excuse,'' said Rosentreter.

Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said the airline was ''intolerant'' of sexual harassment.

''We have been putting a lot more emphasis on security training with staff. I'll happily ban anyone from flying with Air New Zealand if we find any incidence of it — that is not on."

His staff came to work to do their job to the best of their ability and not take abuse, Luxon said.

Passengers were banned from time to time.

''We really want to use it as a demonstrable lesson to make people understand why it is important. We have standards of our own people and we expect customers to have standards too.''

He said unruly behaviour was often alcohol-fuelled.

''Our guys set a very professional tone - (that) is the standard we expect from our customers as well.''

The International Air Transport Association, which represents about 280 airlines, says the issues highlighted by the US survey tallied with its own research.

''We are aware that unruly or inappropriate passenger behavior is in the top three concerns of cabin crew,'' said Tim Colehan, IATA's assistant director of external affairs.

''We would encourage all cabin attendants or airline employees to report any sexual harassment to their employer (in accordance with company policy) and where they consider it appropriate, to law enforcement upon landing.''

But the AFA in the US says despite the prevalence of abuse and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, 68 percent of the 3500 flight attendants survey in the online study, said they saw no efforts by airlines to address workplace sexual harassment over the last year.

"While much of the coverage of the #MeToo movement has focused on high-profile cases in the entertainment industry and politics, this survey underscores why AFA has long been pushing to eradicate sexism and harassment within our own industry," said AFA president Sara Nelson.

"The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about 'coffee, tea, or me' needs to be permanently grounded. #TimesUp for the industry to put an end to its sexist past."