Human Trafficking and Slavery: How Flight Attendants are Saving Lives Miles in the Air

By Nancy Flory Published on February 8, 2017

A young teenager with greasy blond hair sat on an Alaska Airlines flight. She was disheveled and kept her head down when addressed, refusing to answer. A well-dressed older man sat beside her. He made it clear by controlling conversation with others that he was in charge. The whole situation raised a red flag for a flight attendant named Shelia Fedrick.

Fedrick gave the girl a message instructing her to go to the restroom, where she had left a note on the mirror. The disheveled teen wrote on the note that she needed help. Fedrick’s suspicions confirmed, she quickly informed the pilot, who then called the police. The suspect was arrested when the plane landed on charges of human trafficking.

4 Million Trafficked

The United Nations estimates that 4 million women and children are trafficked each year for prostitution or labor. The human trafficking business brings in about $32 billion per year. The widespread problem involves countries all over the world, including the United States — and flight attendants are on the front line in this battle.

Basic Blue Brochure Girl Sitting Trafficking - 900

Airlines Ambassadors International, from the Basic Human Trafficking Awareness Brochure

When Shelia Fedrick saved the young woman, she did so on her own. Flight attendants got no official training for how to spot sex traffickers and victims. Now they are instructed on how to spot human traffickers and ways to intervene.

Former airline flight attendant Nancy Rivard founded Airline Ambassadors International (AAI) in 1996 to provide for orphans and vulnerable children. In 2009, AAI began providing human trafficking awareness training at 40 U.S. airports and other airports around the world.

Rivard hopes to teach people to think like Shelia. She had the sense that something just wasn’t right. The contrast between the younger disheveled teen and the well-dressed older man made her stop and think. Other signs to look for, according to Rivard, include someone who:

  • Is being controlled
  • Is bruised, battered or underfed
  • Won’t answer questions or make eye contact
  • Has few or no personal items
  • Is unusually submissive to the person accompanying him or her
  • Can’t get away from the person with them, even to go to the restroom
  • Doesn’t appear to know where he or she is going

The AAI provides seminars with trainers, some of whom are survivors of human trafficking. The in-depth training seminars are geared toward the travel industry, law enforcement, transportation and universities and institutions that offer tour and travel management classes. AAI’s curriculum has been adopted by the International Tourism Management Institute.

If You See Something …

American Airlines, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, told The Stream that their flight crews receive training offered by The U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The DHS offers training on spotting human trafficking through the DHS Blue Campaign.

“The training is … part of their flight manual, which is regularly reviewed,” AA Media Relations said. “On our employee portal, we link to DHS training on how employees can spot possible instances of human trafficking.” American Airlines also supports AAI through donations, communications support and pass privileges (donated by employees).

Because of Fedrick’s and Rivard’s experiences, the AAI provides training and also works closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign to combat human trafficking and prevent more stories like theirs.

The young girl Fedrick rescued? Fedrick keeps in touch with her. She’s now in college and worries about her exams rather than her exploitation. Fedrick’s motto is now: “If you see something, say something.”

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