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This Is What FAs Are Trained to Do If We Suspect Human Trafficking

Open hand raised, Stop Trafficking sign painted, multi purpose concept - isolated on white background

Last Friday, FlyerTalk reported the case of a couple who were mistakenly suspected of being a human trafficker and victim. Before discussing the specifics of this case, let’s back up to establish some of the broader context.

The most important thing that many people are not aware of is that airlines, and cabin crew specifically, are a growing resource in the fight against human trafficking. Unfortunately, even some flight attendants (judging by comments I received the first time I wrote about this) are not aware of this.

That’s because at this point this training is voluntary, and discussions about it are thus inconsistent. At the very least, there is a section in my airline’s safety manual on what we are to look for and what to do if we see it. Some review of this is often done at my yearly Requalification, at least for international flights.

There is a push to make airline training on this topic mandatory, and why not? We are already tasked with sizing up passengers every day, looking for behaviors that could indicate any number of threatening behaviors. Even for those who think we should just ignore it (!) when we believe we are witnessing a serious crime in action, any training that improves our skills for assessing people is valuable and a win for everyone’s safety.

If we can make even a small difference to the estimated 14,500-17,500 people trafficked into the U.S. every year, it’s worth it. Trust me, it’s a horrible feeling when you see something that sets off alarms bells and you don’t know what to do or no one will listen and you are just left to wonder if you could have changed a life. Just ask Sandra Fiorini. I also had one of those situations before I knew what to look for and where to report it.

So let’s get back to the couple from last week. As is normal for airline stories, we only have one point of view – the people who were clearly unaware of how their dynamic, at least on that day, could appear to bystanders.

The reports mention that she followed him to the bathroom and waited outside (because he was ill, context that the crew was unaware of), but not how she did not use it herself and was then seemingly (1) physically directed back to her seat by him. The orange juice is mentioned, but not that the they were seated across the aisle from each other (so the FA was in between them). As he handed the drink over, she (2) never made eye contact with the crew, and he seemed to (3) speak for her. The couple probably never even thought about the fact that they (4) were dressed disparately.

Of course, in this case, all of this turned out to be innocent! But since we have multiple details together that we are told to look out for, I very well may have called it in, too. I’m disappointed at some of the salty comments towards the crew that the incident has inspired. No one did anything wrong here. It’s an extremely well-intentioned misunderstanding based on multiple details, not just a sudden conclusion that had been leaped to. Considering the praise-worthy motivation and the incredible, life-altering good that can come from flight attendant tips like this, it seems a wise gamble. I’m very glad to see that American Airlines supported the crew.

I’d feel terrible to have misunderstood the situation, as I’m sure the crew does, to have caused some embarrassment and delay to the couple. However, this program does exponential amounts of good weighed against this very unusual mistake. Given the very real potential for just one phone call to literally save many lives, it’s absolutely worth it.

For more information about programs to raise awareness about human trafficking on flights, check out Innocents at Risk and Airline Ambassadors.

For quick tips on what to look for, click here. You can report concerns to the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or online at www.ice.gov/tips.

[Photo: Getty Images]

Comments are Closed.
Cedarglen January 21, 2016

Clearly, this is a Very Difficult Question. IMO, if the FA is absolutely certain that s/he is correct, take some carefully considered action. If you are Not Sure, perhaps it is time to practice minding your own business. Filing a complaint of making notifications just because something does not quite meet YOUR personal standards is simply not good enough. In most cases there are probably very genuine reasons for whatever you have observed - and remain none of your business. It you still remain certain, make written notes and provide them to the authorities. If you are correct, you'll be the hero of the day; if you screw up, you and your company will likely become the subject of law suits and damage claims, one more great way to dispose of your job. If you are wrong - and most are - the company will NOT stand behind you. Unless you are CERTAIN and then some, attending to your 48 other clients may be more productive.

weero January 15, 2016

Glad to read another episode of FAs being the vanguard of law and order and being great at everything except for providing service on board. I am just stunned that denunciating people has come back as something remotely honourable during my lifetime. I thought that after the 3rd Reich and the Eastern Block this 'hobby' would live in infamy for at least a century. But like then it rationalises its ugly, ugly action by the necessity of preventing an unspeakable, largely invisible crime (which later generations won't even take serious). Be it weakening of the people's will or espionage or in this new episode "human trafficking". The end justifies the means, once again.

Thom Anderson January 15, 2016

Those that want to trash their liberty because they think they are receiving increased security are missing a very important point in that one cannot have security in a police state. I do not have qualms with a policeman pulling over a car that is obviously not being driven safely nor would I say that we should ignore all strange behavior but to start profiling persons through a combination of legal acts hardly justifies the unlawful intrusion into the lives of these innocent persons. N.B. by unlawful, I refer to natural law not some statutory enactment that perverts that law.

JRjustJR January 14, 2016

Your average International FA sees many thousands of pax every year on their flights, for hours at a time, and I tend to trust their judgement & instincts (with appropriate training). If something seems unusual enough to be noted by them, unusual and noteworthy compared to their baseline experiences of what 'normal' is, it should be flagged. Doesn't matter if we are talking smuggling, trafficking, or terrorism. Anything sufficiently unusual needs to be highlighted, because an apology is a lot less expensive than a "missed positive" (see cestmoi123) Just my 2-cents

cestmoi123 January 14, 2016

About 100 million people arrive in the US by air every year. Even if 1/2 of that gov't estimate on the number of trafficked people arrive by air (probably high), and that ~15k number is right (also probably high), you're looking at one in every 14,000 people arriving in the US by air is being trafficked. Any serious effort to find those people by FA's is going to be a needle in a haystack effort, with a huge number of false positives.