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Flight Attendants Train to Watch for Human Trafficking


FILE - An Alaska Airlines plane takes off Jan. 26, 2016, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Flight attendant Sheila Fedrick says she knew something was wrong when she saw a teenage girl with greasy hair sitting on an airplane next to an older man.

The girl had bruises, possible evidence that she had been hurt. The man, however, appeared very well-dressed.

When Fedrick tried to talk to them, the man became defensive. So the flight attendant left a note for the girl in a bathroom. The girl later wrote back a message that said “I need help.”

Fedrick was able to inform the pilot of the Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to San Francisco. The pilot spoke to police officials on the ground. By the time the plane landed, officers were waiting for the girl and the man at the airport. She later learned the girl was a victim of human trafficking.

Keeping the skies safe

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says human trafficking is thought to be the third largest criminal activity in the world. Trafficking involves the illegal transport of people from one country or area to another. This is usually done to force victims into forced labor or the sex trade.

Human traffickers have often used airplanes as a way to quietly transport their victims. Yet one group, Airline Ambassadors International, or AAI, is training airline and airport workers to recognize signs of human trafficking. The goal is to give more workers the same kind of skills and sensitivity Fedrick has.

​AAI was the idea of Nancy Rivard, a former flight attendant. She founded the group as a way for flight attendants to help vulnerable children directly.

Rivard said AAI developed the first industry-specific training on human trafficking and trafficking awareness. She said that training just one person can have a big effect.

“Every flight attendant sees 500 people a week minimally… that’s 2,000 (people) a month and 24,000 (people) a year. So training 100 front line employees enables them to scan 2.4 million passengers.”

Airline support

Rivard said it has not always been easy to persuade airline companies to collaborate with her group.

“All airlines are required to train both pilots and flight attendants annually. And including us in the security section of training would seem simple enough to do. But the airlines were not that receptive, originally.”

Rivard told VOA that AAI can spend about $3,000 to set up one training program -- or $5,000, if it’s international. The group contacts airport directors for a place to hold the classes, but AAI usually has to raise the money for the training itself.

Red flags

Rivard says the training program is divided into three parts. The first part is a description of human trafficking. Then a trainer, who usually is a survivor of trafficking, discusses the effects of trafficking on victims. The final part of the program discusses how to recognize and report human trafficking in an airplane or airport setting.

There are many signs to look for.

“We teach our crews … to be aware of victims and be aware of who is traveling and who they are traveling with… Are they with or under the control of a companion… and to look for different indicators like they are not in control of their travel documents. They are frightened, ashamed, or nervous. In many cases, two or three cases I know of where the victim was not even allowed to use the bathroom on their own. They may be unsure of their destination. They may have bruises… If they have scripted or inconsistent stories … Many of them appear drugged and they probably are.”

Rivard also said sometimes victims are tattooed -- with a bar code or name like “daddy” printed on their skin.

Rivard says it is important not to try and rescue the victim when you first recognize the problem. This can endanger yourself and the victim. The most important action is to report what you see to police, with as many details as you can.

Sridhar Chillara is a volunteer with AAI. He used his trafficking awareness training while on a flight from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to Newark, New Jersey. He noticed two children that were being mistreated by two older people. He also saw that as they moved through the airport, they were passed to other individuals, both on and off the plane.

Chillara informed the flight attendants, who contacted the airport in Newark. He was later told that his report led U.S. officials to uncover a child pornography ring in Boston. Eighty-six children were saved.

How to report

Rivard says that if you see a situation suspected of human trafficking, there are several ways to report it.

In the United States, you can call 911, the number for emergency calls, or the Department of Homeland Security TIP hotline (866-347-2423 toll free in U.S. and Canada, or 802-872-6199 if outside the U.S.). This number is operational 24 hours a day. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

AAI has developed a free computer app that lets users not only report what they saw, but they can upload photographs, audio, video, and GPS location.

I’m Phil Dierking.

Phil Dierking reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

What are other ways people can stop human trafficking? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

bruise – n. a dark and painful area on your skin that is caused by an injury

dress v. to put clothes on yourself

collaborate v. to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something

indicator n. a sign that shows the condition or existence of something

tattoo n. a picture, word, etc., that is drawn on a person's skin by using a needle and ink

pornography n. movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people

vulnerable adj. easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally

app – n. a computer program that performs a special function

GPS location – n. The technology can pinpoint longitude, latitude, ground speed, and course direction of the target somewhere in the world

awareness n. knowledge and awareness of your own personality, character, or surroundings

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