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How flight attendants fight against human trafficking

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31 2012 11:03 p.m. MDT

This undated photo provided by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King’s Office shows an advertisement issued by the department. The ad is part of an ongoing effort to educate law enforcement and the public about what it says is the little-known and little understood problem of modern slavery. While many associate the term with the sex trade in Asia or cross-border trafficking, Maria Sanchez-Gagne, an assistant attorney general who oversees King's program to fight human trafficking, says most cases in New Mexico involve U.S. citizens forced into prostitution or labor

Anonymous, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Flying home from a conference in the Dominican Republic, Nancy Rivard was struck by the strange behavior of a woman traveling with a little boy and girl. The children were visibly distressed. The girl was sobbing. But the woman wasn't concerned. In fact, she didn't even appear to know their names.

The woman's behavior suggested something was going on, and Rivard was not about to let it go unnoticed. Although she was a passenger that day, Rivard works as a flight attendant, and the conference she was returning from was the 2009 meeting of the Airline Ambassadors International. She had attended a workshop on human trafficking and learned a hotline that she could call if she saw anything suspicious.

When she disembarked, Rivard called the number and reported the incident. Weeks later she was surprised to get a call from the Department of Homeland Security. Her tip had led to the discovery of a child trafficking ring in Boston. Agents rescued 82 children who had been brought illegally from the Dominican Republic to the United States.

Moved by the impact of a simple phone call, Rivard joined the fight against human trafficking by working to educate other airline personnel. Her experience illustrates both the immense effect that a single person with knowledge of the issue can have and the difficulty in broadening industry awareness.

Unresponsive industry

Though a little information goes a long way to stop human trafficking, trying to convince the airlines to adopt formal training programs has been next to impossible, Rivard says.

Rivard suspects part of the industry's reluctance to address the issue is fear about how it will impact the industry's image. Carol Smolenski, executive director of EPCAT USA, a nonprofit group working to end the commercial and sexual exploitation of children, agrees. "The private sector doesn't want to talk about sex trafficking as something that happens at their companies," she said. "They don't want the public to start thinking of them as the airline with 'the problem.' "

In 2011, Delta Air Lines quietly signed EPCAT's protocol for human trafficking. The protocol requires participating companies to train employees, customers and partner businesses about human trafficking. To this date, Delta is the only airline that has agreed to participate. However, when contacted for a report on their program, Delta representatives were reluctant to comment.

It is Smolenski's experience that most companies want to keep their anti-trafficking efforts under the radar. Hotel chains she has worked with are hesitant to post signs about human trafficking in their lobbies for fear of how it might impact their bottom line. "Their PR representatives tell them that if families associate a particular hotel with human trafficking, they will be less likely to stay there," Smolenski said.

Empowered attendants

Understanding the industry's reluctance to formally be associated with human trafficking, Rivard decided to train her colleagues herself. Working with Airline Ambassadors International, she developed a voluntary program to teach flight attendants how to recognize and report instances of human trafficking.

Rivard's first class took place in March 2012 at San Francisco International Airport. She said that the eight-hour training was so well attended there was standing room only. For Rivard, the response is a testament of the fact that airline personnel routinely deal with the issue and want guidance on how to respond.

Rivard teaches her colleagues the "blue lightning" protocol, which was developed by the Department of Homeland Security. Blue lightning is law enforcement code for human trafficking. When a crew member sees a suspicious situation, he or she alerts the flight deck, which then contacts the airline operations ground crew. The ground crew notifies law enforcement while the plane is still in flight. This advance notice gives agents time to research and analyze the situation and act accordingly.

The 'not my job' problem

Henry Biernacki, a San Francisco-based airline captain with Virgin America, says that during his eight years as a pilot he has never been given any specific training about how to respond to human trafficking. "Airlines have 25 training manuals for pilots," he said. "They average 700 pages each, but I've never seen or heard anything about human trafficking."

But not being trained about human trafficking doesn't mean he hasn't had to deal with it. For several years he worked at a foreign airline in Asia where he ran into human trafficking on a regular basis.

At least four different times he attempted to alert operations personnel about passengers the air crew suspected were victims of human trafficking. In every case the airline told him there was no problem. "I know for a fact they weren't looking into the records of those passengers," Biernacki said.

"When I am in command of the plane, I am responsible for everything that goes on in it and all the people on it," Biernacki said. But he said not all pilots feel this way. He said he knows pilots who won't listen to reports from their crews about suspected cases of human trafficking because they don't consider it a flight security issue. A lot of airlines feel like it is just their job to get passengers from place to place — not look out for them, he said.

This is why Rivard won't stop until she sees airlines adopt training programs for all employees.

email: mwhite@desnews.com

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