By Amy Freed Stalzer
Jan. 11, 2023
Myths and misconceptions about human trafficking abound. Some in the U.S. may assume it is a remote problem only experienced by other countries, or that victims are always physically restrained when exploited or transported across country and state borders. That’s simply not the case, and private aviation companies are now on the lookout, thanks to the DHS Blue Campaign.
The Blue Campaign educates the public, law enforcement, and industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking and how to appropriately respond to possible cases. To address the rising risk in aviation, the campaign’s Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI) trains aviation personnel to identify potential traffickers and human trafficking victims, and to report their suspicions to federal law enforcement.
Human trafficking affects all U.S. states and territories, with traffickers often committing their crime right in plain sight. In private aviation, charter flights in particular are at risk. With the act of human trafficking so well disguised, general aviation professionals might have difficulty recognizing it when they see it.
“A lot of what happens with human trafficking is underreported. We know there’s an abundance of hidden figures and a lack of available data. But when survivors come forward, hearing their stories is eye opening,” says Blue Campaign Senior Advisor Michael Camal. “With the Blue Lightning Initiative, we’re reversing the trend of silence thanks to leading aviation companies that are taking the initiative to partner with us and combat this horrible crime.”
It’s an uncomfortable subject, especially for an industry that services ultra-high net worth individuals, leaders in business and communities who may hold positions of authority and influence. While some steer away from the subject, concerned that it reflects poorly on the industry, others are acknowledging the importance of speaking up.
“Private aviation, and jet charter in particular, has been exposed to a broader, unvetted consumer base over the past decade, primarily through technology, ride-sharing, and having no barrier to entry for charter sales,” says Jacquie Dalton, president of Sparrow Executive Jets, a charter brokerage based in New Jersey. “It puts clients, crews, aircraft owners, and management companies at risk, as well as potential victims. Partnering with the Blue Lightning Initiative is a necessity because our first obligation as an industry is to protect people’s lives.”
To date, BLI’s more than 110 partners – including companies like Jet Aviation and NetJets, as well as airlines, airports, associations, and educational institutions – have trained over 350,000 aviation industry personnel, and actionable tips continue to be reported to law enforcement.
Camal says the ever-increasing enrollment of aviation partners in BLI is a trend that is having a positive impact in advancing the Blue Campaign’s mission to end human trafficking, but it’s essential for even more aviation personnel to get involved in the initiative and be trained to identify the signs of trafficking in aviation settings.
One of the most famous uses of aviation for human trafficking in the United States involved American sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein, who transported his victims via private air travel. Survivors interviewed for the Netflix documentary “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” said that many indicators of the crime were missed by fixed based operator (FBO) staff, pilots, line service technicians, and other airport workers.
As another example, Camal cites a 2021 case where human traffickers used small charter aircraft to smuggle Venezuelan females into unmanned airports in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The traffickers lured the women onto planes with the promise of restaurant work, but upon landing, they took the women’s documentation and threatened them with deportation if they didn’t engage in sex acts at a brothel. The traffickers used charter and private flights for increased anonymity and to avoid immigration and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scrutiny.
Camal says traffickers have also been known to use airplanes to transport victims to multiple locations, such as a reported survivor who was moved between 35 different cities in 13 different states, all by air.
Human trafficking is described by the National Human Trafficking Hotline as the business of stealing freedom for profit. Important facts for the general aviation community to know about it include:
Camal said that to correctly identify human trafficking, aviation professionals should put aside any preconceived notions about who its victims are. The Blue Campaign reports that it can happen to anyone – regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, immigration status, socioeconomic class, or geographic location – and it has been reported in rural, suburban, and urban communities.
According to the DHS, some of the common indicators of human trafficking that aviation personnel can watch for include:
Aviation professionals and others wanting to report suspected human trafficking to federal law enforcement should call the DHS Tip Line at 1-866-347-2423.
Camal says that it’s up to everyone in the aviation community to work together to identify and report human trafficking when they see it. “If someone sees something suspicious – one of the trafficking indicators – call the DHS Tip Line anonymously and it will be investigated.” He advises that aviation personnel witnessing suspected human trafficking should not attempt to get involved in any way, such as by confronting a suspected trafficker directly or alerting a victim to their suspicions, for their own safety.
Camal noted that not all tips reported to the Tip Line pan out, but “we’d rather have 50 tips that turned out to be nothing than to not get that one tip that leads to something.”
“All it takes is one tip,” he added. “We’re asking the entire industry to step up, engage in training and be a part of public awareness. There’s not a single case we’ve solved without help from other organizations like local and federal law enforcement, airlines, airports, FBOs, aviation businesses, and private companies.”
DHS is recognizing National Human Trafficking Awareness Month by hosting the Combating Human Trafficking in Aviation Summit, an in-person event for BLI partners and aviation industry professionals, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Washington, DC. The summit will feature subject matter expert presentations, partner representative panels, and a lived experience expert's perspective on best practices to combat the crime.
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