A New Push Against Human Trafficking On Flights

A New Push Against Human Trafficking On Flights.

A flight attendant notices a teenage girl uncomfortable with the older man she’s travelling with and leaves her a note in a bathroom. The teen writes back: “I need help.” A teenage boy from New Zealand on a one-way ticket to visit a sex offender is intercepted by a careful Los Angeles customs agent. These are two stark examples of how airlines, airports and the Department of Homeland Security are stepping up efforts to thwart human trafficking, which is transporting people for forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation. Travelers will see a lot more warnings, and be encouraged to learn how to spot the crimes they may be sitting next to on flights.

Training is expanding at airports, from skycaps to shop clerks, and signs are going up, including one in every bathroom stall at the Las Vegas airport. Over the next month or so, Delta Air Lines will start placing 8-foot-tall signs at gates in hub airports. Some give victims some text or call, and others educate travellers about signs of trafficking. “It’s happening right under our noses,” says Nancy Rivard, a former American Airlines flight attendant who is president and founder of Airline Ambassadors International, a group that conducts training for travel-industry workers. Stopping the illegal flow of people “takes us being alert and having the guts or the moral imperative to make a call,” she says. “You hope you’re wrong, but your action could save a life.” Last year, the National Human Trafficking Hotline took 26,727 substantive calls involving 7,621 reported cases of trafficking humans for work or sex, according to the Polaris Project, the nonprofit that operates the hotline for the Health and Human Services Department. This year’s numbers are running 10% to 20% higher, Polaris says.

Las Vegas knows that big events, from boxing matches to Super Bowl weekends, draw criminals along with other visitors. As local authorities stepped up efforts to thwart sex trafficking, in particular, Rosemary Vassiliadis, director of aviation at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, realised “these monsters are coming through the airport.” She started asking employees. Those working the taxi line told her they thought they saw it fairly regularly but didn’t know what to do. So the airport hired Airline Ambassadors to train front-line workers. Now everyone who works at the airport goes through a summary of the training when they get their airport-issued badge. Ms Vassiliadis says she flunked the training on the first go—she instinctively tried to intervene in a situation that looked like someone was travelling against her will. That’s the wrong move—they’ll often run. Workers are trained to try to keep people in sight without spooking them and call the right authorities when they are able.

When eyeing a potential trafficking victim, Polaris says to look for people unable to provide details of their departure, destination or flight information. Traffickers typically give their victims little information. Look for a traveller who has someone speaking for him or her, a traveller who isn’t carrying his or her identification doesn’t have any personal luggage or isn’t appropriately dressed for travel or their destination. Other signs: nervousness, avoiding eye contact. And people buying a large number of one-way tickets with cash can be a red flag.

Congress included a requirement in FAA authorisation last year that airlines train flight attendants in human trafficking. A short online training program created by the Homeland Security and Transportation departments meets the requirement. The government’s Blue Lightning Initiative even has a version of the training for the travelling public. Several carriers are doing more. Delta started training employees in 2013 and so far has educated 54,000 of 80,000 on human trafficking. Last year the airline broadened its effort, using more extensive training, supporting anti-trafficking organisations and deciding to educate customers. It isn’t necessarily great marketing—hitting customers with disturbing warnings of criminals in their midst flies against traditional airline pitches of warm places and smiling faces. “I think it’s our social responsibility when we have the influence we have,” says Allison Ausband, Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight services.

Alaska Airlines flight attendant Shelia Fedrick noticed a young woman with greasy hair on a Seattle-to-San Francisco flight who looked uncomfortable with the well-dressed older man with her. She tried to engage them in conversation, but the man was defensive. Ms Fedrick whispered to the teen to go to the bathroom, and she left a note there. On the back of the paper, the woman wrote: “I need help.” The flight attendant alerted pilots and police arrested the man for sex trafficking. Alaska says it started training flight attendants in 2015, shortly before Ms Fedrick’s February 2016 flight. The airline has also trained customer-service agents.

Last week, a Customs and Border Protection agent interviewed a 17-year-old boy travelling alone from New Zealand. He was on a one-way ticket and said he was on his way to visit a Michigan family he met on social media. He carried just $26, CBP says. The agent followed a standard procedure designed to protect minors and looked up the names the boy had. The man he had been communicating with was a registered child sex offender with two felony convictions, CBP says. The teen was found inadmissible to the U.S. under a rule giving CBP extra responsibility for minors travelling alone. He returned to New Zealand, where he lives with a caregiver. “The whole narrative was highly suspicious,” a CBP spokesman says. “We didn’t want to allow him in and in two weeks see a rape case or abuse.”

Airports say they try to find ways to get information to victims without flagging traffickers. They post a hotline phone number, sometimes with dashes in nontraditional places to make it easier to remember without writing down: 888-3737-888. Polaris chief executive Bradley Myles says there’s an initiative underway to put bars of soap in hotels with the number printed on it, so they see it in private, just like the Las Vegas airport bathroom stalls. The hotline staff is trained to identify the type of situation: People held captive and forced to work in agriculture or construction or massage parlours, for example. Polaris works with a network of law enforcement agencies across the country to refer cases to someone locally trained in trafficking cases.

The travel attention has already led to some ugly incidents of false accusations: fathers travelling with daughters who get questioned by police after a flight crew or others think something is amiss. Several airlines have had to apologise to detained passengers. Airlines aren’t liable for trafficking as long as passengers meet requirements on passports and visas. Advocates say good Samaritan laws protect airline employees who might end up making a false accusation. Delta says it trains employees to ask a colleague to look at a situation and see if there’s agreement before making a report. Others say following the criteria for possible trafficking scenarios usually avoids mistaken reports. “I want people to err on the side of calling when your gut is telling you something may be wrong,” Mr Myles says. “I think the number of times people got it right far outweighs the number of times people got it wrong.”

Credit: Scott McCartney for The Wall Street Journal, 13 December 2017.