Flight Attendants Want Mandatory Training Against Trafficking

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By Stephanie Beasley

June 3 — A flight attendants union is putting its full force behind legislation that would require all air carriers to train employees to recognize and report signs of human trafficking.

The group said the proposal has received a lukewarm response from major U.S. airlines, though a number of air carriers told Bloomberg BNA that they had already voluntarily adopted human trafficking awareness training.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), which represents about 50,000 flight attendants from 18 airlines, spearheaded a provision included in a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill (H.R. 636) that the Senate passed in April as well as a committee-approved House companion (H.R. 4441), which would require all air carriers to launch human trafficking prevention training programs for flight attendants. The Senate version specifies that airlines would have to provide training modules and materials developed by the Transportation Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of the agencies' Blue Lightning partnership to combat human trafficking. The materials outline common indicators of human trafficking activity and the best practices for reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement officers.

The law would apply to U.S.-based air carriers only.

The FAA reauthorization provisions mirror legislation (S. 2642, H.R. 4430) introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) along with Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) calling for enhanced human trafficking awareness training, which also was backed by AFA.

And the group supports a House Appropriations Committee-approved $58.2 billion Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) bill that would encourage the Transportation Department to update its online human trafficking prevention training for airline personnel.

“What we have been trying to accomplish is a mandate for airlines to make this a part of our safety training,” said AFA President Sara Nelson, who is a flight attendant for United Airlines. “We need to have a standardized program throughout aviation.”

Growing Problem

Human trafficking is the world's second-largest criminal industry after drug dealing—and the fastest growing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It involves the exploitation of women, men, children and transgender people for either involuntary labor or commercial sex. Traffickers use force or deception to get victims to comply. The indicators can vary but some of the telltale signs that flight attendants can be trained to notice include a traveler having physical control of an adult companion's documents; restriction of the movement or social interaction of an adult traveler by a co-traveler; or a child traveler who appears to be accompanied by someone claiming to be a parent or guardian who is not related to the child.


Trafficking prevention programs instruct flight attendants to report such behavior to a pilot who would alert airline staff at the destination airport. It is key that flight attendants be trained to report these signs to the cockpit quietly so as not to create a situation that could escalate and become dangerous to other passengers on board, Nelson said.

The Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) supports the flight attendant union's efforts to establish a federal training mandate. An ALPA spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA that the group believed the primary role and responsibility of pilots and flight attendants was to maintain the safety of the passengers, crew and cargo on board. “In the context of this shared commitment to safety, ALPA strongly supports flight attendants and other frontline airline workers in taking appropriate action to identify and notify federal authorities of potential human trafficking victims as part of federal anti-human trafficking efforts,” she said.

In addition to reaching out to pilots, AFA said it also issued a request to airlines last year asking them to sign a memorandum of understanding with DHS and DOT that would commit them to adopting the Blue Lightning computer-based module, related printed materials and methods for airline personnel to safely and anonymously alert federal law enforcement.

Yet Nelson said Delta Air Lines was the only major U.S. carrier to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the agencies. Delta CEO Ed Bastian supported the stand-alone anti-human trafficking bills when they were introduced in the House and Senate in March, saying that if the legislation were enacted into law, it would “build on Delta's efforts to combat human trafficking on commercial flights.”

But Allegiant Air said it also was part of DHS's Blue Lightning initiative to train airline crews to help combat human trafficking.

“Allegiant was one of the first adopters of the program, and we have provided the training to our crews for the last four years,” the company said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA. Allegiant added that this year it will offer the training to every employee of the company, not just the in-flight team.

Other Airlines Respond

Bloomberg BNA contacted several major U.S. air carriers for this story. Many said that though they are not aligned with the federal program, they provided human trafficking prevention training as part of their annual flight attendant security training programs.

A spokesman for United Airlines told Bloomberg BNA that human trafficking awareness was included in the company's recurrent flight attendant training but declined to elaborate on the content of the training or whether it followed the Blue Lightning materials offered by DOT and DHS. Southwest, Spirit and Alaskan airlines said they included training on common indicators of human trafficking and practices for handling suspected trafficking as part of their annual flight attendant trainings. Alaskan Airlines said its training was a subset of the more extensive federal training program. Southwest Airlines said it planned to maintain the training at levels that met or exceeded the regulatory requirements outlined in the FAA reauthorization bills.

An American Airlines Group Inc. spokesman said the carrier included human trafficking training similar to that provided by DHS and DOT as part of its annual, mandatory training program and further noted the carrier had established a partnership with Airline Ambassadors International, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the United Nations that offers voluntary training to flight attendants.

Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue did not respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for comment.

Airlines for America (A4A), which includes most major U.S. air carriers with the exception of Delta, told Bloomberg BNA that “mostly all” of its members provide human trafficking prevention training and that the group supports a voluntary collaborative partnership between government and the private sector.

Training Provision Faces Challenges

Deborah Sigmund, director of the anti-human trafficking nonprofit Innocents at Risk, said that though she supported any efforts to provide training to airline personnel, establishing a federal mandate could be tricky.

“It's always difficult when Congress tries to tell private industry what to do,” she said.

Innocents at Risk is another partner of Airline Ambassadors International. Sigmund said that while there might not be a standardized human trafficking awareness program in the airline industry, the groups had worked with flight attendants from every major U.S. air carrier.

Congress has until July 15 to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization bill before the agency's current spending authority expires. However, given that the House has not yet advanced its FAA reauthorization to the floor or taken up the Senate version, it seems very likely that lawmakers will have to pass a short-term extension. Nelson said if that happens, AFA will look for other legislative vehicles for the human trafficking language.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

Click here to watch a video from Airline Ambassadors on human trafficking: http://src.bna.com/fzT .

Data from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center is available here: http://src.bna.com/fzR.

A link to the State Department's 2015 report on human trafficking is online: http://src.bna.com/fzQ.