What being a flight attendant taught me about human trafficking


A few years ago, on board a flight from Los Angeles to New York, a group of young girls wore nothing but jeans and T-shirts — in the middle of winter. They didn’t speak English, and they didn’t speak to each other the entire flight. I remember thinking it was odd, but I didn’t know what to do about it.My mother, a retired flight attendant, once had a man on board a flight traveling with a teenage girl. They didn’t look like they were related, and they weren’t friendly with each other either.

“When I asked the girl what she’d like to drink, he answered for her,” my mother said. “I thought that was weird since they weren’t speaking to each other. If I’d known more about human trafficking, I might have engaged them in conversation to feel the situation out, but at that time we didn’t know anything about it.”

Back then human trafficking never crossed our minds. But that has changed.

A few years ago, my airline started training us on spotting telltale signs of human trafficking on the plane. Can the passenger speak for themselves, or is someone with them controlling what they say? Does the passenger avoid eye contact? Do they appear fearful, anxious, tense, depressed, nervous, submissive? Are they dressed inappropriately, or do they have few possessions — even on a long flight? Can the passenger move independently, or are they accompanied by someone seemingly controlling their every movement?

 My colleagues and I have learned this because of an American Airlines flight attendant named Sandra Fiorini. She testified before Congress about what she’d seen on one of her flights, and how she hadn’t known what to do about it.

When she saw an 18-year-old boy on a six-hour flight carrying a newborn — with its umbilical cord still attached — with a single bottle of milk and two diapers in his coat pocket, she had tried to report it, but she couldn’t find anyone to help. That’s when she realized something needed to be done.Fiorini joined forces with Deborah Sigmund, founder of a nonprofit organization that fights child exploitation and human trafficking, to educate airline employees and create a human trafficking hotline. Airlines employees are the first line of defense for protecting the countless children who are trafficked on major flights each day.

The State Department estimates 2 million women and children are victims of human trafficking every year. There are more slaves today than any other time in human history: Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, second only to drug trafficking. And while drugs can be sold once, a person can be sold several times a day. It’s a business that brings in an estimated $150 billion every year.

Even though I’d been trained on what to spot on the aircraft, I never thought about what happened to these people on the ground. For me, it ended when passengers walked off the plane. Because I didn’t think I went to places where things like that happen. Because I didn’t think I lived somewhere where, you know, people sell other people.

But as it turns out, I was wrong. It happens everywhere, in strip malls across America
I live in Redondo Beach, where most people at town meetings are more concerned about beautifying the waterfront than anything else. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I met a woman at my son’s swimming lesson, that my eyes started to open.

When she heard I was a flight attendant, she asked about our human trafficking program. She belonged to a local nonprofit group involved in helping victims of human trafficking, and it was during this chance encounter while our sons swam laps that she told me about a massage parlor a block away that her group was watching. A block from the pool — and about five blocks from my house. A year later the police busted the place for prostitution and they closed shop, only to be replaced by a few new places down the street. One step forward, three steps back.

Redondo Beach is a very nice town — a very nice town with way too many massage parlors. A Yelp search for massage brings up 88 results in a town covering six square miles.

“One in every strip mall,” she said that day at the pool. That’s when I started to do my own research, and how I found myself standing before the city council in November

I’m not a public speaker — unless you consider telling 165 people how to use their oxygen masks to be public speaking — but there I was with three minutes to tell them everything I knew, to try to open their eyes to a real problem.
That night it was a packed house. Most of the people there were wearing matching T-shirts to show the council members they meant business: They were there to discuss beautifying the waterfront. I guess when you live in a beach town and spend most of your time facing the ocean, listening to waves crash and watching beautiful sunsets, it’s easy to miss what’s going on right behind you. Only two of us were there to speak out against the massage parlors.

After I introduced myself I told everyone I was a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier. Truth be told, it was the first time in my life my job actually made me feel like I knew something important. It felt like an episode of Parks and Recreation. Here I was, this blonde who came out of nowhere to discuss something that sounded outrageous.

I started with the signs of a fake massage parlor: Security cameras outside, customers getting buzzed in. Windows covered with bars, boards or dark curtains, employees who rarely leave the location.



One comment

  1. Amazing article. Thank you for writing this and creating awareness about these horrible acts of modern day slavery. I also live in redondo beach and am very involved with an organization that rescues victims of human and sex trafficking and we job train them to help give them a new beginning. I’d love to learn what more we can do. Please! Let’s connect!

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