SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – It’s a flight to the dark side.
And more and more victims of human sex trafficking are being transported by planes.
According to Polaris, a non-profit group that fights human trafficking, 71 percents of the victims are on planes en-route to a life of sex, drugs, torture and possibly death.
The airline industry is now joining the fight to combat this growing problem.
“We don’t want to miss an opportunity to help a victim,” said Allison Ausband, senior vice-president in-flight service for Delta Airlines.
Delta Airlines launched its campaign January 11th which was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. The airlines also launched a public service video shown on its flights.
“I think it obviously raises awareness to this but it brings some humanity and emotion to the topic,” said Ausband.
In 2017, there were 8,759 cases of human trafficking reported nationwide. That’s according to Polaris, a non-profit group that combats human trafficking and slavery.
That same year, Utah reported 33 cases or about three per month.
According to Polaris, 71 percent of those being trafficked are on a plane.
Since 2007, the founder of Innocents at Risk has been working with the airline industry to get on board and help protect women and children from human trafficking.
“So the airline seems to be their most preferred way to put victims on the plane,” said Deborah Sigmund, founder of Innocents at Risk. “Sometimes with traffickers. Sometimes with people that are just being delivered.”
At Salt Lake City International, officials are also aware of the growing issue of human trafficking and have joined the campaign.
“The challenge is that these individuals have the appropriate documentation to travel through the airport so there’s really no way to identify who is being human trafficked unless a victim comes forward or unless somebody observes a behavior and suspects something,” said Nancy Volmer, a spokesperson for the airport.
That’s why employees and tenants are receiving training on how to spot suspicious behavior.
Trafficking victims may be:
- Fearful of authorities, the trafficker and the public
- Exhibiting signs of anxiety, lack of memory, physical injury
- Having limited freedom of movement
- Not dressed properly for their destination
- Can’t provide details of their destination.
At the Salt Lake airport, there are human trafficking signs posted in restrooms along with a phone number in case someone detects a problem.
Officially, it hasn’t happened at the Salt Lake airport.
But last year, a Salt Lake ticketing agent with Frontier Airlines became suspicious of a man and two young women.
According to an airline source, she called the flight attendants who were en route to Denver and federal authorities were alerted.
“As far as I know, it was investigated at Denver International Airport,” Volmer said.
Renee LeGrand was a victim of human sex trafficking.
“He said I will buy you clothes,” LeGrand recalled his pitch to her. “I will take you places that you’ve never been. He said you will have everything you need. If you choose me and I did.”
LeGrand never arrived by plane but walked the streets of Salt Lake City in the 1970s.
“It seemed like family to me,” she said. “I had lost my safety net in my own home when I was 7.”
For years, LeGrand was a sex slave and high on drugs to cope with the routine.
When she tried leaving, she was beaten and sold to someone else. But she also tried to escape from him.
“I tried to leave (and) he took me to Indiana Avenue by the field because I tried to leave and he beat me with a golf club.”
He broke her leg and returned to work that night.
She now works with Journey of Hope after leaving the street scene and kicking her drug habit.
Journey of Hope helps survivors.
“No one grows up wanting to be a prostitute when they get older, wanting to travel the world with someone who wants to sell them to other people and beat them if they want to leave,” said Shannon Cox with Journey of Hope.
That’s why the airlines want to stop lives from being ruined.
Last month, a ticket agent with American Airlines in Sacramento, Calif. notified authorities after seeing something suspicious. She called authorities and three lives were saved.
“If you have any suspicion, any inclination that maybe it’s not right please report it,” said Sigmund. “Once they’re out the door, they’re gone.”
Sigmund once spotted suspicious behavior on a flight and reported it to authorities. She believed a life was saved.
“I was told not to worry if you make a mistake,” she said. “They (authorities) told me they will sort it out.”