With the global economic downturn, criminal activity is on the rise. Airlines train their employees to spot potential sex trafficking victims, and to take action — safely. Rona Gindin reports.

At check-in, the ticket counter agent notices a young teenage girl with a man about 40. The man does all the talking, answers all questions, handles the passports. The girl keeps her eyes down. She’s just a grumpy adolescent with her dad, the airline employee assumes … yet something just does not feel right.

That duo could indeed be standard travelers. They could also be a victim and perpetrator of sex trafficking. Air travel is involved in 38% of human trafficking incidents, says Polaris, a Washington, DC-based organization that fights human trafficking.

That means it’s worth training aviation employees to spot potential human trafficking incidents, and to teach them which authorities to contact when a situation looks iffy. “As long as it seems dodgy, you have to report it,” said Yap Mun Ching, Executive Director of the AirAsia Foundation, which developed educational offerings for the Malaysian airline’s employees.

20 Million Victims

Human trafficking includes not only sex trafficking but also essentially forcing people into labor, marriage, prostitution or even organ harvesting. More than 71% of “modern slaves” are women and girls, says the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

That 38% of trafficked people who wind up on an airplane is a big number, as about 800,000 are said to be enslaved. That is according to Human Rights First, an organization committed to “disrupting” trafficking networks. About 20 million people in total have been or are victims, the New York-based outfit has found.

Across the globe, airlines are stepping up to intervene. Not all airlines, and not everywhere, but the movement is growing. Efforts include training flight crews and ground staff to recognize telltale signs, to trust their gut instincts, and to report suspicious behavior to the proper authorities. Many airlines are even reaching out to their customers, asking them to share information on troubling situations that they happen across in the airport or aboard the plane.

Airlines cannot depend on human trafficking victims to speak up for themselves. Some are terrified of what their captors will do if they find out. That might mean physical or psychological harm, or another punishing action. In some cases, “They’re warned that if they talk to police, they’ll be charged as an illegal immigrant,” said Mun Ching. Airline crew members, “some of the last friendly faces the victims will see,” might be their final hope of escape, “so we wanted to train our staff to give help where it’s needed.”

Other victims do not even realize they are in trouble until they are a mile high. They will board thinking they are enroute to a new, say, modeling job, then start realizing something is awry. If they don’t figure it out and tell a flight attendant before the plane lands, these individuals may find themselves in a new unwanted life as soon as they’re scooped up by an awaiting perpetrator in the baggage claim area.

Stepping Up in the US

North American airlines started taking strong new actions in the last half decade. That is in part because in July 2016 the United States government initiated the Federal Aviation Administration Extension Safety and Security Act of 2016, which requires flight attendants to be trained to recognize human trafficking victims. Then, in October 2018, it expanded to include training for gate and ticket counter agents. Likewise, the US departments of Transportation (DOT) and Homeland Security, together with US Customs and Border Protection, teamed up to create the Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI), with the goal of having airlines train aviation employees in spotting potential problems. In fact, the DOT’s own 55,000 employees are trained and re-trained every three years. The campaign, which involves virtual training and printed materials, is available to both domestic airlines and other aviation-related businesses.

The Blue Light Initiative is part of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign, which focuses on “national public awareness” – consumers and industry professionals alike. Its motto is ‘One Voice. One Mission. End Human Trafficking’.

To date, 22 US airlines, two airports and four other entities have taken advantage of Blue Lightning’s training videos and literature. BLI training might be offered to international carriers in the future.

The DOT works with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Transportation Working Group (APEC-TPTWG), the International Transport Forum (ITF) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

A full 20 years ago, the US passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which made human trafficking a federal crime. About the same time, the United Nations defined the Palermo Protocol, resolutions meant to prevent and handle human trafficking, especially of women and children, around the world.

Airlines Train Thousands

American airlines began ramping up their training at about the same time, each in its own way. Polaris assists in creating some programs, specifically going into “the nitty-gritty of how the crime works, why traffickers are successful, and what victims are experiencing,” said Elaine McCartin, Corporate Partnerships and Training Manager for Polaris.

Understanding those details, she emphasized, is crucial. The reason: “Flight attendants are in the unique position that they talk to passengers regularly.” That means chatting up a potential victim will come across as “totally normal.” She added, “Flight attendants can ask, ‘Oh, where are you headed?’ or ‘Can I help with your bags?’ and it won’t raise red flags as it would if others asked.”

At Southwest Airlines, the response was to reach a slew of employees with an online curriculum. The Dallas, Texas-based carrier has already reached 60,000+ employees, and not only those working on flights and at check-in counters. “While it’s important for our customer-facing employees to have access to education that can help them combat human trafficking, we felt it was valuable for all of our employees to complete the curriculum,” said Elizabeth Bryant, Vice President of Southwest Airlines University. The program involves online modules that incorporate written content, infographic videos and skill checks, Bryant said, covering an overview of the crime of human trafficking, tips on how to identify human trafficking and suggested actions that should be taken, if necessary, to combat suspected instances. Supplementary programing is being developed specifically for customer-facing employees.

Delta Air Lines, likewise, has been aggressive. In early 2020, it was awarded Reuters’ Stop Slavery Award for its global campaign. That involves components of its decade-long #GetOnBoard initiative. Delta signed ECPAT’s Code of Conduct in 2011, the first of many airlines to do so. ECPAT, based in Thailand and originally called End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, focuses on stopping sexual exploitation of children.

Delta has since trained tens of thousands of employees. Its training involves four video modules, some with interactive testing. The company has also lobbied for state and federal anti-trafficking legislation, donated $2.5 million to Polaris’ US National Human Trafficking Hotline, and created an apprenticeship program for survivors together with Wellspring Living, an American organization that helps domestic sex trafficking victims recover and learn life skills. Delta, like Southwest, also donates air travel to help survivors fly home or to places where they can receive the care they need.

Aggressive in Asia

Airlines flying from the US have a wealth of resources. Unfortunately, airlines in other parts of the world can’t necessarily tap into such a pool of assistance. “What we built in the United States really doesn’t exist around the world,” said Elaine McCartin of Polaris, pointing to its own efforts, and those of several other nonprofits and government agencies including access to anti-trafficking resources such as national hotlines. “The reality is that response infrastructures to trafficking vary greatly around the world.” The US does collaborate with Mexican and Canada, she noted.

“Training in Asia isn’t compulsory,” added Yap Mun Ching, of the AirAsia Foundation. “I think airlines have a collective responsibility to train staffs about this.” The problem is not only the Far East, she pointed out. “At a roundtable in Europe, it was rather surprising to me that it’s not just Asia, that nobody in Europe trains either. I think any airline, low cost or legacy or a premium carrier, is vulnerable to trafficking. Trust me, it happens on every airline.”

In her case, Mun Ching aggressively pursued creating an AirAsia initiative that launched in 2017 as Know the Signs. “This came about because, during focus groups, employees told us they sometimes came upon situations that made them feel uneasy,” Mun Ching recalled. “They weren’t sure what the things they saw meant or if they should do something about it. They weren’t sure what the signs of trouble were and wondered if their saying something would get a passenger really angry or expose the airline to lawsuits.”

Image credit: Airline Ambassadors.

Starting out through an online search, Mun Ching discovered Nancy Rivard of the US Airline Ambassadors International and invited her to help out, with funding assistance from the US Embassy. That evolved into a road show with talks in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta, with experts sharing what they’d seen done in the training arena. One of them, Donna Hubbard, is a sex-trafficking survivor herself, who later went on to work as a flight attendant and trainer at American Airlines.

AirAsia has been strengthening its efforts ever since. Staff members in the cabin crew are all required to participate in human trafficking training, and other staffers will have their own program shortly. A train-the-trainer program helps AirAsia reach as many employees as possible. It involves volunteers among ground staff, security personnel and various other functions training with subject matter experts, then being trainers themselves. Of note: The offering is only for employees of two years and more. “They are so familiar with people that they can really spot who stands out,” Mun Ching explained. “It’s a question of having sharpened their senses.”

Playing the Victim

AirAsia’s training involves classroom time, yet the strongest component is role-playing. The session is split into three sections: an introduction of what human trafficking is, lessons on telltale signs that someone might be a perpetrator or victim, and then the role playing.

Participants are broken into groups, where one plays a human trafficking victim, and one each a perpetrator, a crew member behind the desk, a flight attendant and/or a security officer. They are given a scenario and told to discuss suspicious signs and potential courses of action among them. Each send ends with an open forum, an often-lively discussion that lasts past the scheduled class time.

While the more traditional parts of the session are necessary, it is the role-playing that’s most effective, Mun Ching reported. The classroom-style portion involves academic definitions of the difference between a trafficker and a smuggler, for example.

That is followed by instructions to trust instinct, and then: “Let security and law enforcement decide.” Indeed, as participants are honed on what to look for, they are urged to hand over all actions to others. “You do not have to be investigators,” they learn, she said, noting that a goal is for employees to overcome the fear of filing a report. Instead, staffers are instructed to flag whatever behavior makes them uneasy and report it to the appropriate authority who can take action, such as airport security or law enforcement. “The goal is to increase confidence among the crews to make reports,” Mun Ching emphasized. “If someone triggers alarm bells in the air or on the ground, the first point of contact is our security team, with members on duty in the airport and at the office 24/7. They will link to law enforcement. No employees need to get into any risky situation.”

McCartin of Polaris noted that leaving any and all enforcement to such security staffers is crucial for the safety of airline employees and other passengers.

On her end, Mun Ching develops relationships with those authorities. The Royal Malaysian Police, for instance, has a unit dedicated to human trafficking (Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants - ATIPSOM), and officers will assist at airports when they receive reports of possible trouble. Three active cases this past year began with airport security notifying police.

Spotting Situations in Latin America

With some governments imploding, Latin America has plenty of other major issues to battle. Still, notable efforts are taking place. Avianca of Colombia zoomed in on areas where trouble is prevalent. “The check-in modules are the most ideal place to analyze and identify possible cases that may arise as customers prepare to board one of our flights,” said a spokesperson.

The airline trained more than 2,000 customer service employees in human trafficking prevention at targeted Colombian airports: Pereira, Cali, Medellín, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Cúcuta, Manizales, Armenia and Bogotá. Several organizations, including the United Nations Agency against Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the country’s attorney general’s office, UNICEF and the Renacer Foundation assisted. When flight crew members notice an issue onboard, they’re trained to alert the flight commander, who then reaches out to security at the destination, where authorities on land will take over.

For the customer service team, Avianca chose face-to-face and virtual training under a campaign entitled #EsoEsCuento. The in-person element involves a two-hour session with 10 to 15 employees, held at the airport. Audio-visual elements assist. The goal is to help the employees develop the skills to notice children and teenagers at risk for commercial sexual exploitation. “Trained service officers learned about detecting warning signs to identify possible cases of this crime,” the spokesperson explained, adding that Avianca will soon reach out to customers, too, with “an outreach of physical and digital graphic pieces to invite travelers to join the fight against human trafficking.”

In addition, another 16,000 Avianca Holdings administrative employees took a virtual crime prevention course that involved six training e-learned modules followed by an evaluation. That course is part of Avianca Academy, the airline’s official online learning platform. The efforts are working. Avianca employees spotted 90 possible human trafficking situations in 2019.

What Needs to be Taught

The Blue Heart Campaign against Human Trafficking works to raise awareness of the plight of victims. Image credit: United Nations Agency against Drugs and Crime.

Effective staff training involves two distinct elements. One is the basics of recognizing behavior that might be related to human trafficking. ICAO, together with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) offers details in its “Guidelines for Training Cabin Crew on Identifying and Responding to Trafficking in Persons” manual (Cir 352). The Polaris report, “On-Ramps, Intersections, and Exit Routes: A Roadmap for Systems and Industries to Prevent and Disrupt Human Trafficking,” summarizes key findings in the list below.

Potential Indicators of Human Trafficking Using Airlines*

  • Adult not in possession of their own passport and travel documents.
  • Potential victims not being able to speak for themselves (e.g. potential traffickers answering questions and making decisions for victim).
  • Little to no knowledge of destination or who is meeting them. Scripted or inconsistent stories.
  • Traveling with few personal items.
  • Clothing inappropriate for climate or used to conceal signs of abuse.
  • Overly fearful or anxious behavior.
  • Verbal abuse.
  • Controlling behavior (e.g. potential victim not being able to freely move about the cabin or interact with other passengers).
  • Physically aggressive behavior (e.g. potential trafficker shoving a victim or violently grabbing their arm).
  • A denial of food or beverages on flights.
  • Signs of malnourishment, physical abuse and/or exhaustion.
  • Little to no eye contact.
  • Flight booked same day and paid in cash or with pre-paid credit card.
  • Use of pre-paid credit card, or potential trafficker in possession of large amounts of cash.
  • Individuals in possession of multiple cell phones.

*Reprinted with permission from “On-Ramps, Intersections, and Exit Routes: A Roadmap for Systems and Industries to Prevent and Disrupt Human Trafficking,” Polaris. This is information for airline personnel as part of a comprehensive training on human trafficking.

Spotting a human trafficking situation is not a science, McCartin noted. “It’s not as simple as memorizing a list of indicators, such as does the person appear malnourished or is she unable to make eye contact. You must think, ‘What about this situation indicates the person is not fully consenting to this situation?’” And an airline employee should never barge in. “You don’t advocate going in and saying, ‘Hey, I think you may be a trafficking victim right now.’ That would be jarring and traumatic for the victim, and it can be incredibly dangerous.” Traffickers tend to sense “when the heat is on,” she said, and “then retaliate in dangerous ways.” In sum: “You don’t know what people are capable of, or how they’re going to respond, so let law enforcement be the ones to interact.”

To be yet more on-target, customer-facing airline crew members need to know details that are unique to each culture, according to AirAsia’s Mun Ching. “Each country we fly to has peculiarities about how their residents travel,” she explains, “so we have to understand the local patterns and behaviors of each country in which we operate.”

Residents of the Philippines, for example, do not travel lightly, she explained. “They’re always using all of their baggage allowance plus carrying multiple little bags with souvenirs for everyone in the family. So, if someone checks in holding nothing, you know something is a little bit strange there.” Likewise, in other cultures leisure tourists usually travel in a group, not alone, so a solo check-in would be a tip-off.

What Can the Public Do?

Airlines need not do all the snooping themselves. Since those being trafficked, like all travelers, spend time in or at airports, airplanes, airport restaurants and other destinations, the general public can join in the watchdog fray. But how does an aviation company get that started?

Delta Air Lines has produced a video that lets passengers know what to look for. The short film, designed to “put a face and story to modern slavery,” according to a media statement, is played on flights that have seatback screens. The video involves potential trouble in the cabin, at check-in, in a parking lot, in a restaurant and more. Also part of the #GetOnBoard initiative: informative signs in hub airports, and an editorial in the January 2020 issue of its Sky inflight magazine.

Southwest Airlines’ efforts include sharing information on its social media channels that might spread the word to followers, as well as resources like the National Human Trafficking Hotline (US 888-373-7888 or text 233733).

At AirAsia, the outreach element is complex, since the airline flies to more than 150 countries and passengers speak 20 to 30 different languages. “If you’re coming in from China to Malaysia, you might not read English, or even Malay or Thai, so how would you understand what we’re trying to communicate to you?” Mun Ching pointed out. “Also, there is no regional anti-trafficking hotline, so we’d have to list a Malaysian number, an Indonesian number and a Thai number, for starters. Then what if you call for help and the person who answers doesn’t speak your language?”

Currently, AirAsia is working with a group of Thai programmers to create a game-like app that might address these issues. “Maybe they can develop a chat bot that can detect what language your phone is set to and provide you with automated questions that will lead you to a number you can call where somebody on the other end speaks your language,” Mun Ching said. “Of course, we hope some government or civil society sector will take this on down the road. We are only an airline’s small foundation.” There are no concrete plans as yet.

Want Help Getting Started?

The following organizations have valuable information that can help airlines get started. Most have a great deal of information posted online that can help airlines from all countries.

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Transportation Working Group (APEC-TPTWG)
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) - This specialized United Nations agency offers a downloaded publication called Guidelines for Training Cabin Crew on Identifying and Responding to Trafficking in Persons
Polaris’ Global Modern Slavery Directory - Directory of 2,872 organizations in 199 countries that companies can use to identify service providers, hotlines and other resources in their regions
ECPAT International
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
United Nations Agency against Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
United Through Human Trafficking (UAHT)
US Department of Homeland Security, Blue Campaign 
US Department of Transportation (DOT), Blue Lightning Initiative 
US Department of Transportation (DOT), Human Trafficking 
International Transport Forum (ITF)