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Traveling in Freedom: How Airlines can Play Vital Roles in Fighting Human Trafficking

My career as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines allows me to interact with people in every walk of life. Whether I’m taking a businesswoman to a meeting or a family on vacation, my goal is the same: to keep them safe and treat them with the utmost kindness and respect. I want each person to leave my care better than they came, and this is never truer than in the case of potential human trafficking victims. 

Staying attune to our customers is my job description. I see when someone is shivering and bring them a blanket. I see when someone is struggling with a bag and give them a hand. Most importantly, I see when a passenger is feeling intimidated, uncomfortable, hopeless, manipulated or controlled, and have the opportunity to respond. It is not only my job to ensure the safety of each passenger on and off the airplane, it’s also my job to ensure they can travel in freedom.

Responding to signs of trafficking

Airline professionals have unique opportunities to interface with traffickers or victims before they reach their destination. This year, Delta partnered with Polaris to develop a training that teaches employees about trafficking indicators in the air, on layovers, or in the local community. Delta also donated $1 million to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), which Polaris has operated for over 10 years. Data from the National Hotline has been used to create the training based on real scenarios with survivor input. So far, Delta has trained over 56,000 employees.

Trusting my instincts, my training and my interactions can be all it takes to recognize a potential human trafficking situation. If an individual is travelling alone with no idea where they’re going, who is picking them up, how long their trip is or the purpose of their travel, I want to ensure they can step off the flight into a safe situation. If the companion of a traveler isn’t allowing them to speak, look me in the eye, go to the restroom unaccompanied, or even hold their own ticket, it clues me in to learn more information. Our Operations and Customer Center sometimes may receive as many as 5 reports of Delta people recognizing potential human trafficking indicators on board each day.

I simply observe, gather information, and take the necessary steps to ensure they arrive of their own free will.

Calling customers to #GetOnBoard

While much needs to be done to disrupt traffickers in our skies, there is also a need to #GetOnBoard by providing meaningful support to survivors and victims.

In Polaris’s recent data report, 54 percent of survivors stated that transportation was a barrier in leaving their trafficking situation. Last year, Delta partnered with Polaris to create an opportunity for customers to #GetOnBoard, too. Through SkyWish, customers can donate miles to Polaris that go toward flying survivors home, to reach specialists who provide critical services or to reunite with family. This year alone, 60 flights have been provided to connect survivors’ to safety.

Erica*, an adult potential victim of gang-controlled sex trafficking, was recently supported by Delta mile donations. She was extracted from her situation with the help of law enforcement and a local service provider. The service provider reached out to the NHTH, who supplied miles to purchase a Delta flight for Erica to reunite with her family. The NHTH also connected her to a law enforcement victim advocate and long-term service provider upon her return.

Delta’s ‘line in the sand’

At Delta, our CEO Ed Bastian refers to this as our “line in the sand,” insisting we take action. As Delta employees, we have a unique role to leverage in the fight against human trafficking and the pursuit of freedom. A 2018 report by Polaris also examined how the transportation industry often intersects with trafficking operations and how we can stop traffickers and better support survivors. In the report, 38 percent of the survivors surveyed reported that they flew at least once during their exploitation and another report by Urban Institute found that 71 percent of labor trafficking victims were trafficked into the U.S. on an airplane.

As a flight attendant, I can be a beacon of help to those who reach out or even those who don’t have the chance to. My extended Delta family, 80,000 strong, is positioned to interact with our customers and ask more questions. Together, in over 300 destinations around the globe each day, we can bring a slave to freedom. We engage with customers, stay alert, work together and use our training.

It is an honor to keep each and every passenger safe and to be an advocate for the freedom of each person in my care.

This blog was authored by Sadie Lambert, Delta Air Lines Flight Attendant, Government Affairs team, and #GetOnBoard Ambassador.

Learn more about how the intersection between transportation industries and human trafficking. Stay informed! If you’d like to help make an impact on the lives of human trafficking victims and survivors join our Grassroots Network.

*Note: The identifying details of the case described has been changed to protect the privacy of potential victims.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.