Shelia Fedrick said she instinctively felt something was wrong the moment she saw the girl with greasy blonde hair sitting in the window seat of aisle 10 on a flight from Seattle to San Francisco.
The girl “looked like she had been through pure hell,” said Fedrick, 49, a flight attendant working for Alaska Airlines. Fedrick guessed that the girl was about 14 or 15 years old, travelling with a notably well-dressed older man. The stark contrast between the two set off alarm bells in her head.
Fedrick tried to engage them in conversation, but the man became defensive, she said.
“I left a note in one of the bathrooms,” Fedrick said. “She wrote back on the note and said ‘I need help.’”
Fedrick says she called the pilot and told him about the passengers, and when the plane landed, police were waiting in the terminal.
It’s that kind of intuition that former flight attendant Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors, is trying to instill in airline staff across the nation as she trains them on how to spot the signs of human trafficking.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 2,000 human traffickers and identified 400 victims last year. Since 2009 Airline Ambassadors has been working to make sure that when a trafficker flies with a victim, the flight crew is trained to spot and report them.
Last week Rivard and several of her colleagues flew to Houston to meet with approximately 100 flight attendants who volunteered for the Airline Ambassadors training session on how to recognize human trafficking.
Over two days, former victims related their experiences to the flight attendants. In-flight crews were taught to look for passengers who appear frightened, ashamed or nervous; people traveling with someone who doesn’t appear to be a parent or relative; and children or adults who appear bruised or battered.
They’re also taught to notice if someone insists on speaking for the alleged victim, doesn’t let them out of their sight or becomes defensive when questioned. Victims sometimes appear drugged.
Super Bowl Connection
Much of the training took place at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport, where the flight attendants were taught how to put their skills to use in a densely packed airport.
The time and place of the training were no coincidence. With the Super Bowl just days away, Rivard wants to ensure that flight attendants working routes in and out of Houston are able to spot the signs of a victim who needs help.