On a typical two-hour flight from Seattle to San Francisco, a flight attendant noticed something that wasn’t so typical. Red flags went up in Shelia Fedrick’s mind when she saw a young teenage girl traveling on her Alaskan Airlines flight that day.
She looked unkempt with her greasy hair, but what was stranger was that she was traveling with an exceptionally older, well-dressed man. In her account to NBC News, Shelia said the girl “looked like she had been through pure hell”. When she attempted to make small talk with both of them, the man became suspiciously protective.
Trusting her instincts, Shelia asked the girl if she needed to use the restroom, where she secretly placed a note on the mirror. Understanding the cue, the young girl wrote back that she needed help. Shelia alerted the pilot to the situation, who in turn contacted the authorities on the ground. Police were there waiting to arrest the man when the plane landed.
Why? Because the poor girl was a victim of human trafficking.
Though this happened in 2011, this year, Airline Ambassadors International highlighted the incident to promote awareness of this heinous crime. The organization trains flight attendants to identify possible victims so that perpetrators can be caught.
A United Nations report on modern human trafficking states the most common form is sexual exploitation, making up 80% of cases. Women and girls comprise the majority of victims, and in some regions, children are the victims 100% of the time. Catching those responsible is a concerted effort between governments, the public, and service industries, such as those involved with travel.
Airline Ambassadors developed a program with Customs Border Protection for the travel industry to help fight trafficking. They hold training seminars around the world that include studying real cases and how to respond to potential scenarios. Sometimes, the trainers are survivors themselves.
The non-profit works with government agencies as well as airports, airlines, hotels, law enforcement, and universities. Alaska Airlines, where Shelia heroically intervened on the job, has been training their flight attendants and customer service staff since 2015. Employees learn to recognize potential cases and how to handle the danger on the spot.
Airline Ambassadors continuously works with Homeland Security and the State Department to update their curriculum. With the global prevalence of human trafficking, it’s been noted that major trafficking hubs are some of the world’s busiest airports. Among the countries that are destination drops are Israel, France, the U.S., Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Sadly, you may be shocked to find out that when you travel, you could unknowingly be witnessing a crime. It could even be taking place in your community. People in those circumstances may show signs of anxiety, are unable to speak for themselves, or avoid eye contact.
Like the girl in Shelia’s case, they may also have a poor physical appearance. Thanks to her quick thinking and action, that young woman made it out alive. Today, she is a college student who still keeps in touch with Shelia from time to time.
What do you think of Shelia’s experience and the work of Airline Ambassadors? Have you ever spotted or worked with victims of human trafficking?