Airlines are under pressure to provide separate women's seating to combat the lecherous spread of male passengers over the dividing armrests, amid a surge in midair sexual assaults.

Writing for the South China Morning Post, columnist Kate Whitehead described her experiences with "manspreading" and urged airlines to introduce women-only rows.

"Nine times out of 10 – based on my extensive experience flying 'cattle class' – if a man is seated beside a woman he will claim the armrest. Not only that, but his elbow will protrude slightly into the woman's seat space.

"Unless you are prepared to press your arm against the man's – which will allow you to feel the rise and fall of his breath and is, I feel, too inti­mate a connection with a stranger – then you have lost two inches of your seat."

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"I hope that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, people will come to realise that the airline armrest is a gender political issue. The first airline to establish "pink rows" will have my custom."

Invoking the #MeToo movement may have some relevance – while "manspreading" might be an issue for some, there also serious concerns around sexual assaults on flights.

In response to disturbing incidents where women were groped on planes, two Indian airlines have introduced policies to keep female passengers safe.

Air India, India's national carrier, introduced female-only rows in 2017, following two incidents in a month of men allegedly groping cabin staff or other passengers.

Air India introduced female-only rows in 2017, but assault numers are just as shocking on US carriers. Photo / Getty Images
Air India introduced female-only rows in 2017, but assault numers are just as shocking on US carriers. Photo / Getty Images

In December of that year, a business class passenger flying from Mumbai to Newark moved to an empty seat next to a woman in economy and allegedly groped her as she slept.

Another Indian carrier, Vistara introduced a "Woman Flyer" service, which promised preferred seating to female passengers travelling alone. Even if a woman hasn't pre-selected a seat before her flight, the airline says it will ensure only a window or aisle seat is assigned at check-in.

In India, the Foreign Office has urged caution from single women using public transport. However, sexual assaults on planes are also an increasing problem in the United States.
This year, CNN reported that FBI investigations into midair sexual assaults had increased by 66 per cent from 2014 to 2017. There had been 63 investigations into sexual assault on aircraft in 2017, compared with 57 in 2016, 40 in 2015 and 38 in 2014.

Investigations believe the actual numbers of assaults are likely to be much higher, as many cases go unreported.

FBI Special Agent David Rodski said most incidents took place on red-eye overnight flights, flights over three hours where cabin lights were darkened and often involved the consumption of alcohol.

One incident made headlines earlier this year when a 35-year-old married man, travelling with his wife, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman seated next to the couple on a flight from Las Vegas to Detroit.

Indian carrier, Vistara introduced a
Indian carrier, Vistara introduced a "Woman Flyer" service for solo female travellers. Photo / Getty Images

The man said he was unaware of his actions, as he had been in a "deep sleep" after taking a pill, NPR reported.

Investigators believe the numbers of midair sexually assaults are almost certainly much higher.

"I'm shocked at the number of passengers who do not take that act and they'll wait until the plane is on the ground," Rodski told CNN. Making sure the proper authorities are notified "allows us to do the investigation, collect witnesses, get the flight crew for statements prior to everyone departing for their next destination."

Rodski said the bulk of the incidents happen on red-eye overnights, flights of three hours or more where cabin lights might be darkened, and/or instances where alcohol is being consumed.

While the move to create safer spaces for women on flights might be only seen in India currently, perhaps this disturbing trend will see the practice spread to other countries in the future.

Read Kate Whitehead's original article here.