Heroic Flight Attendant Proves It’s Time for Airlines to Take Action Against Human Trafficking

The story sounded like something out of a Wesley Snipes action movie set on an airplane. Only this one was true.

It actually happened in 2011, but it only recently got reported in US media.

Alaska Airlines flight attendant Shelia Fedrick noticed a dishevelled girl sitting beside an older, well-dressed man on her flight. Ms. Fedrick’s gut told her something was wrong.

The BBC tells it:

The teenager “looked like she had been through pure hell”, the flight attendant told NBC, and the man would not let her speak to the girl. Ms. Fedrick left a note for the girl in the plane’s toilet – enabling the girl to explain that she needed help. It turned out the girl was a human trafficking victim – and Ms. Fedrick’s instincts had helped to save her. The pilot was able to inform the police, who were waiting when the plane landed.

The girl is now attending college, and has stayed in touch with the flight attendant, according to 10News. But imagine if Shelia Fedrick hadn’t taken action. Who knows what would’ve happened to that teenage girl.

Sadly–that story is the exception. Human trafficking is rampant. So many silent victims. Countless perpetrators going about their cruel business, making money off of the suffering of others.

How many victims are we talking about here? Precise statistics are hard to come by, given the secretive nature of these deplorable crimes. ECPAT-USA explains, “Due to its clandestine nature and the lack of uniform and disaggregated data, making accurate calculations on the scale of commercial sexual exploitation of children can be difficult and misleading.”

ECPAT-USA is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting every child’s basic human right to grow up free from the threat of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

To ballpark it, ECPAT-USA refers to this statistic: “Globally, profits obtained from the use of forced labor are estimated at $150 billion per year; about $99 billion from commercial sexual exploitation.”

Human trafficking is thought to be the third largest criminal activity in the world. It involves the illegal transport of people from one country or area to another, and is usually done to force victims into forced labor or the sex trade.

Airplanes are one way for human traffickers to quietly transport their victims.

The UN shares this figure from the International Labour Organization: “Human trafficking has a turnover of $31 million annually. At any given point in time, around three out of every 1,000 persons worldwide are in forced labour or sexual exploitation, adding $150 million to the criminals’ pocket.”

For Shelia Fedrick and the girl she helped save, following her instincts was the right call —-but instincts alone are not enough. That’s why the UN has urged airlines to adopt measures to combat trafficking.

I turned to ECPAT-USA to explain why airlines are key to combatting trafficking. Executive Director Carol Smolenski told me, “Airline personnel are perfectly positioned to identify potential cases of child trafficking and potential cases of people traveling to exploit children in destinations.”

Ms. Smolenski pointed out that many suspected cases have been reported by reservation agents, flight attendants and others.

She believes it’s important for airlines to train their staff about what to look for, and for them to make the message clear to their customers that exploiting children is illegal everywhere.

In a move I hope will lead to improved efforts to combat trafficking, on June 8th the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted the global horror of human trafficking to airline leaders.

Its message: “While airlines provide a tremendous force for good, connecting businesses to markets, reuniting families and friends, promoting tourism and cultural exchange, their services can be misused by criminals to facilitate the trafficking of men, women and children.”

Speaking at the 73rd International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC Director of the Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs, said, “As a father myself of 4 kids, using the term ‘human trafficking’ in the 21st century is frankly heart-breaking.”


The event brought together over 1,000 delegates and media, as well as representatives from some 275 airlines.

Felipe De La Torre of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Reuters, “We want airlines to join our campaigns and our initiatives in order to make human trafficking and migrant smuggling visible.”

According to this Reuters report, more than 70,000 U.S. airline staff have been trained to identify smugglers and their victims like flight attendant Fedrick did under what’s called the Blue Lightning initiative. It’s a federal partnership with the aviation industry to combat human trafficking launched in 2013.

It’s a start, but some believe the program is poorly funded and that the majority of foreign airlines are barely starting to focus on the problem.

Given the disturbing statistics around human trafficking, I think it’s safe to say that more can and should be done to combat the problem.

Reuters says that the recent meeting of airline bosses was the first time human trafficking has been discussed globally in aviation, and further steps could be discussed at the next full meeting in 2018.

Why it took the industry so long to address it in the first place is a head-scratcher.

The Reuters article alluded to some delegates questioning “how willing they would be to draw attention to the issue” and “airline chiefs may be reluctant to put their brands at risk.”

How many of you think less of Alaska Airlines’ brand after reading about the heroic actions of its flight attendant  Shelia Fedrick? I for one think more–much more–of the airline since hearing her story.

Since many human traffickers take to the skies to transport their victims, instead of keeping quiet on the subject, all airlines should step up efforts to combat human trafficking. Do you agree?


  • Airline Ambassadors International (AAI) is training airline and airport workers to recognize signs of human trafficking. Learn more here.
  • Review ECPAT-USA’s handy Child Trafficking Travel Indicators sheet to recognize the signs of human trafficking and most importantly—what you should do. (Hint: Do not handle things yourself. Alert trained staff or authorities.)

Photo Credit: Flickr/Imagens Evangélicas


Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Melania P
Melania Padilla6 months ago

This is so sad; really the world/governments/organizations/individuals should be doing more to stop this. I think human trafficking for sex is one of the worst things humans have done :(

Margie F
Margie FOURIE7 months ago

So lucky for the girl.

heather g
heather g8 months ago

Airline staff are having to take on police duties - I hope they are being paid accordingly - bonus pay, etc.

Celine Russo
Celine Russo8 months ago

If the airlines fight against human trafficking it's not a negative on their curriculum, it's a plus to their clients.

Olga Troyan
Olga Troyan8 months ago

I wish there were more people like Shelia Fedrick.
Unfortunately, a situation where you have enough time to pass a secret note to a victim and organize an arrest doesn't present itself often. It will be harder when you are not on an air plane.

Leo Custer
Leo C8 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Jetana A
Jetana A8 months ago

Let's all try to be everyday heroines like Shelia Fedrick! Pay attention and take action when things don't seem right.

rosario p
rosario p.8 months ago

Human Trafficking is the 21st Century Slavery, as old as humans themselves, with deep roots in all levels of society. It is a hard fight against and we ALL have to be there.

Lisa M
Lisa M8 months ago