How Airports Could Help Stop Human Trafficking

San Francisco cites the upcoming Super Bowl as an impetus behind employee training programs—though trafficking happens everywhere and anytime.

Image Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Choy from Santa Clara, California
San Francisco International Airport (Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Choy from Santa Clara, California)

On a Monday in mid-January, in San Francisco’s International Airport, around 200 ticket- and customer-service counter employees, custodians, and maintenance workers gathered for a special training. They were learning how to spot victims of trafficking, and what to do if they found someone in need of help.

On February 7, the Super Bowl will return to the Bay Area for the first time in 30 years, and it’s an oft-repeated chestnut that when sports championships come to town, so too do human traffickers.

“We hear from our experts in this subject matter that major sporting evens can trigger an uptick in trafficking,” says Doug Yakel, a press officer at SFO.Not only in sex trafficking, but labor trafficking. But it’s very clear this is something that’s not new to our doorstep because of the Super Bowl.”

That’s true. Many trafficking survivors and advocates say the link between the Super Bowl and trafficking is, at best, unsubstantiated. (The maybe-canard even has its own Snopes page). At worst, it’s an attempt to link trafficking with hyper-masculine sporting events and voluntary sex work. Either way, the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition writes in a blog post, the Super Bowl is a “high visibility opportunity” to raise awareness about trafficking. The group has worked with SFO to organize workshops for airport employees since 2012—the first trainings of this kind. It helped out in this pre-Super Bowl training, too.

The Bay Area may be better known for its startup unicorns, but the region’s skyrocketing affluence and booming tourism industry have also made it a national center for traffickers and their victims. A 2015 report commissioned by the mayor’s anti-trafficking task force found the region to be “a hub for human trafficking and a hot spot for child sex trafficking”; the FBI has also found it to be one of 13 national “high intensity” areas for child sex trafficking crimes. Nineteen local agencies identified 291 victims of trafficking in the second half of 2014 alone. More than half of the victims were younger than 18. These figures are, really, just estimates: The majority of trafficking crimes go unreported and unprosecuted. The number of Bay Area victims of trafficking is probably much higher.

A particularly hectic day at San Francisco International Airport in July 2013. (REUTERS/Jana Asenbrennerov)

Airports on the front lines

Traffickers often use airplanes to transport victims through networks that span the globe. “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,” flight attendant Heather Poole wrote in a recent Mashable op-ed on trafficking. “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.”

Later, Poole’s airline began training its employees to spot the telltale signs of trafficking, and she realized that what she had witnessed was textbook. Indeed, government authorities, lawmakers, and advocacy groups have recently endeavored to transform the airport labor service to an informal complex of eyes and ears. The Department of Homeland Security established its Blue Campaign in 2010, which consolidated its human trafficking programs and scaled up the agency’s public awareness campaigns. It also upped the number of trainings for law enforcement and transportation workers. There are now trafficking awareness materials in 13 major U.S. airports, SFO included.

Airline Ambassadors International, which also helped with the SFO training, is a nonprofit group made up of airline personnel originally founded to organize humanitarian trips to help orphans and vulnerable children. The group now offers Blue Campaign-certified trainings for airline workers, which often includes testimony from Donna Lynne Hubbard, an American Airlines flight attendant who is also a trafficking survivor.

There’s nothing glamorous about waking up in the morning and wishing you didn’t wake up because you know what the rest of the day holds for you,” Hubbard told a Bay Area CBS affiliate after this month’s SFO training. “So often on the airplane and in the airport, what we see are women who are victims who don’t always understand that they are being victimized or what’s getting ready to happen to them.”

The trafficking warning signs

What are airport workers learning in their trainings? SFO’s Yakel says the instructors who taught January’s course instructed participants to look out for children or young women traveling without personal items—no purse, no brief case. If the passenger is accompanied by a​nother person who is conspicuously well-dressed when the passenger is not, that can also be a warning sign. So, too, is refusing to answer workers’ questions (“Would you like a drink?” “May I see your boarding pass?”), deferring instead to the companion. During their training, Yakel says, workers were told to refer suspicious behavior to airport police, who could get in touch with trafficking experts at the Department of Homeland Security.

Spotting subtle deviations in behavior will be hard work. San Francisco International Airport sees 120,000 travelers every day, and expects about 10,000 more than usual as the Super Bowl comes to town. But “even if we weren’t hosting the Super Bowl, this is something that could happen through the airport,” Yakel stresses. These are skills, he says, that airport workers can use to help people long after the game is over.

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