ALPA Joins Blue Lightning Initiative

Partners with Government to Combat Human Trafficking

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer

Human trafficking is one of the most profitable black-market industries in the world, generating an estimated $150 billion annually, and North America isn’t exempt. The International Air Transport Association projects that nearly 25 million people will become victims of human trafficking this year and, of those, it’s believed that hundreds of thousands will enter and exit Canada and the United States.

To help fight this growing criminal plague, ALPA has partnered with U.S. federal government agencies—the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Customs and Border Protection—to participate in the Blue Lightning Initiative. The four organizations recently announced the initiative in a joint press release, which noted that the Blue Lightning Initiative is a component of the DHS Blue Campaign, training airline personnel to detect human-trafficking activity and report it to federal law enforcement officials.

Modern-day slavery

The DHS characterizes human trafficking as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.” Men, women, and children are transported for a variety of purposes, including sexual exploitation, forced labor, and forced marriage. Others may be conveyed for the purpose of organ removal.

“As flightcrew members responsible for the operation of tens of thousands of flights across North America, airline pilots, working with our partner crewmembers, are uniquely positioned to help combat the vile act of human trafficking,” said Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, in the joint statement. “Through our partnership with the Blue Lightning Initiative, ALPA pilots now have access to education and training that help identify potential human-trafficking victims and alert the authorities.”

In addition, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao remarked, “Public awareness is key to identifying and reporting human trafficking. Each tip may make the difference in saving someone’s life.”

The press release noted that more than 100,000 airline workers have already been trained, which is important because human-trafficking victims are often transported via airliners. The United Nations (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 60 percent of these individuals are transported across international borders to unfamiliar surroundings where they can be more easily manipulated.

Complicating matters, this offence is extremely lucrative. Canada’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking observes, “Human trafficking is often characterized as a ‘low-risk/high-reward activity’ because of the fact that the crime is clandestine, therefore difficult to detect and investigate, which contributes to the relatively low prosecution rates worldwide.” Victims can be repeatedly or continuously exploited, enhancing their potential for profitability.

Online training for ALPA pilots is expected to launch this summer; and while participation isn’t mandatory, it’s encouraged to help members better understand how to assist in a team response and become aware of the available resources. Airline employees, in many respects, offer a last line of defense because once victims get off these flights, they tend to disappear from society and become nearly impossible to track, let alone rescue. Educating pilots about what to look for and how to respond provides an additional layer of defense for these victims. Training consists of a brief tutorial, which members can access on our website.

Circumstantial evidence

Last year, an American Airlines ticket agent encountered two teenage girls who had no identification and one-way tickets from Sacramento, Calif., to New York, N.Y. She became even more concerned when the tickets were flagged for potential credit card fraud.

“I think it was the way they kept looking back and forth at each other like they weren’t really sure,” the agent later told news media. “And then they were texting someone on the phone and that person was giving them answers.”

The ticket agent contacted local law enforcement officials, who interrogated the girls and learned that a man they met on social media had invited them to New York for the weekend to earn money modeling in music videos. This was simply a ploy to lure them to the human-trafficking perpetrator.

On a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Los Angeles, Calif., to Honolulu, Hawaii, a flight attendant noticed an older Asian man traveling with three Caucasian girls. Although they claimed to be family, something about their behavior struck the flight attendant as odd.

In addition to talking with them, the flight attendant examined the man’s required agriculture form, comparing it to information on the passenger manifest. It was then that he noticed all three girls were listed as having the same name. Honolulu sheriffs questioned the four passengers upon arrival and categorized the situation a trafficking case, referring it to the FBI.

In Europe, a campaign is in the works to educate members of the public about ways to protect themselves. Those who suspect they could be abducted or forced to travel against their will are advised to hide a spoon in their undergarments. Spoons are recommended because they’re metal, can be worn more comfortably than forks and knives, and trigger screening devices.

Once the concealed metal object is detected, the individual will be taken to a more private location for an additional search and questioning. At that time, he or she can advise security agents of the situation.

For all the cases of human trafficking that have been identified and prosecuted, many others go undetected, making the need that much greater for other airline employees—including pilots—to learn about the Blue Lightning Initiative.

Since the beginning of time

Examples of slavery span history, and efforts to curtail it have been largely intermittent and isolated until the turn of the last century. A worldwide campaign to end this criminal activity began in 2000 when the UN formally adopted resolutions in support of a Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

To bring aviation into the fold, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights collaborated with the International Civil Aviation Organization to compile a comprehensive set of strategies specific to the industry. Guidelines for Training Cabin Crew on Identification and Response to Trafficking in Persons (Circular 352), which was published in 2018, acknowledges, “Using a layered approach to address the trafficking in persons requires the involvement and training of multiple stakeholders, such as flightcrew members and all aviation personnel.”

The United States and Canada have adopted their own rules and policies for airlines and their employees. And while the UN circular specifically applies to flight attendants and those who come in frequent contact with passengers, included is information on the important role pilots can play.

To learn more about what’s being done to curb human trafficking, contact ALPA’s Engineering & Air Safety Department at or 1-800-424-2470, visit the DHS Blue Campaign and the DOT Blue Lightning Initiative, and read “Slavery in the 21st Century: What You Need to Know About Human Flying and Trafficking,” in the May 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

ALPA Members: Take the training now.

Notify Authorities

On the ground: In Canada and the United States, call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE, the ICE Homeland Security Investigations tip line, toll free 24 hours a day. In cases of immediate danger, call 911 or contact local authorities. When traveling abroad, call 01-8002-872-6199, the international number.

In flight: Use ACARS or the Domestic Events Network. Your airline may have additional reporting protocols.

DHS recommends: “If you see something, say something.®” Make sure to indicate that you’re participating in the Blue Lightning Initiative.

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)