Flight Attendants Trained to Report Asian American Women to the Police Because See Something, Say Something

Earlier in the week I wrote that the Department of Homeland Security wants hotel desk clerks to snitch on guests as possible sex traffickers based on a set of behavior that could match that of plenty of guests.

To bastardize Jeff Foxworthy, ‘you might be a sex trafficker if…’ you frequently use of the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your room’s door; you have multiple computers, cell phones, and other technology; you have photography equipment; you pay with gift cards; you turn down housekeeping (‘make a green choice’).

It turns out that they want flight attendants to do this also, and so a married couple was detained at New York JFK because the crew thought they fit the ‘profile’.

[I]t’s giving non-white airline passengers a new reason to fear detainment at the hands of government officials. The latest example comes out of New York, where an entire plane was detained while an interracial couple—the woman Asian American, the man Puerto Rican—were questioned by Port Authority police officers over suspected sex trafficking.

The captain made an announcement for all passengers to stay seated on arrival at JFK. Twenty minutes passed, and 3 armed police officers took the woman off the plane.

Their drivers licenses showed they live together at the same address in Astoria. Apparently they looked suspicious though because she was Asian, she followed her husband to the lavatory (he wasn’t feeling well), and they shared an orange juice.

See something, say something, when you’re encouraging amateurs to do it, leads to so many false positives that real cases of sex trafficking seem likely to get less attention. So many false positives and no one will believe it when real obvious signs are reported. Asking American Airlines flight attendants to call the cops on Asian women traveling with their husbands seems like a bad idea.


American Airlines New York JFK

Nonetheless, American’s position is:

“At American, the safety and security of our customers and employees is our top priority,” Feinstein said in a formal statement. “Out of an abundance of caution, our employees are trained to report any activity that is out of the ordinary.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I dont get it. All the reports I read about US flight problems are somehow related to religion or skin. Wasn’t the US the land of the free, with zero tollerance for discrimination of all sort??

  2. “Out of an abundance of caution.” The Orwellian response that justifies any/all trampling of civil liberties, probable cause, and bigotry.

    We need to remove or change the last line of the Star Spangled banner because America is neither the land of the free nor the home of the brave.

  3. Racial profiling at it’s finest… how many other companies will now do the same thing for “safety and security”.

  4. Should sue for civil rights violation.

    Even if they win only a few thousand, it’s worth it to swing the pendulum back toward a sane use of security resources

    This is not a safety issue.

    This is not a minor issue.

    Totally crazy country this is.

  5. When I flew out of LGA last week, there was a middle east male passenger at the gate. He was traveling alone, didn’t have any baggage with him and looked NERVOUS. That just looked suspicious to me. I was thinking for a while if I should “see something, say something”.

  6. Profiling (for terrorists or trafficked individuals) often goes wrong when protocol isn’t followed. Can they speak English? Are they permitted to even speak at all? The victim needs to identify themself first.
    An ‘abundance of caution’ seems to never go well with TSA or HS.

  7. Shades of Nazi Germany. Turn in your family, your neighbor, your friends, for perceived wrong-doing. We’re rapidly heading down the wrong path; where will it end?

  8. Wasn’t there a post on Flyertalk by a crew member discussing this story?

    Essentially, the poster said:
    (a) Don’t shoot the crew directly – they are being directed to look for and report these kinds of things.
    (b) *Had* it been a bona fide trafficking case, would people commend the crew for having the reporting attitude or face criticism all the same?
    (c) The balance between reporting a case because it could be a real trafficking case and getting it wrong, versus letting it go for fear of being judged for being prejudiced and then finding that it was real trafficking (in probability theory, these are the “Type I” and “Type II” errors), meant it was better to profile and report, as apparently history shows that the number of false positives pales compared to real cases caught.

  9. I wonder where this flight crew was from. I would be surprised if they were new york based because there is nothing out of ordinary about that couple, but maybe if they were a crew from some place without any diversity they got confused. This woman is american and since she was born here I would think she is travelling on a US passport. Obviously the airlines would know that. Furthermore, what I don’t understand is that she shows the cops her id while still at her seat showing she lives in New York and they still remove her from the plane and separate her from her husband. What right do they have to do that to a US citizen who has produced ID? Really ridiculous the amount of civil liberties that are being taken away from american citizens in today’s climate. If this woman was puerto rican they would not have assumed she was a prostitute being trafficked, so they made a racist assumption because she was asian and not the same race has her husband.

  10. Such racism is appalling. And to cite the “abundance of caution” angle smacks of cowardice and lack of accountability. The couple should sue for unlawful detention and the crew member should be fired.

  11. “Abundance of caution” is almost always weasel-talk for infringing on people’s rights. So now we’ve got hotels where you can’t have a lot of electronic devices with you for work without arousing suspicion of sex trafficking; you can’t carry much cash with you or you’re a drug smuggler; you can’t be an interracial couple flying (even if married) or it’s human trafficking; you can’t generally be brown at TSA checkpoints or you’re a potential terrorist; you can’t be Hispanic in several states without being considered an illegal immigrant; you can’t visit tourist sites in Turkey without being suspected of ISIS connections. What else? I know I’m being a bit hyperbolic here, but they’re chipping away at our freedoms one by one. “Abundance of caution” amounts to death to liberty by a thousand cuts. Enough, already. Do proper police work by all means, but put a halt to the profiling by amateurs.

  12. “Abundance of caution” has a better ring to it than “hysterical over-reaction.”

    Between this kind of directive and “zero tolerance”‘ persecution in the schools, I feel like I’m living in a national asylum sometimes.

  13. Asian or Oriental? Asian could be Indian, [Tibetan], Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Middle Eastern.

    If it were oriental, please let us know. You won’t “offend” anyone. Asian American what?

  14. Sue the airline for profilling, embarassment, harassment etc. this shouldbe stopped and sueing is the only way airlines will notice. Doc

  15. I think better awareness of human trafficking is good, though I agree that the checklist is silly. Howevr, jumping to assumptions is wrong- the flight attendant should have just said something to the woman like, “did you try the pizza in the Dominican Republic? They make the best pizza in the world!”. No self respecting New Yorker could leave that statement unchallenged, and she could have quickly determined that the woman was not being trafficked…

    David G- I read the articles from your links- thanks. However, they basically confused all instances of prostitution with human trafficking, which is wrong. Again, getting those confused also leads to a ton of false positives for human trafficking.

  16. I prefer to err on the side of protecting the women and girls. In Istanbul we saw a blatant case of an obviously drugged woman being transferred to a couple of mafia looking Russian men. The Turkish airport employees witnessed the whole thing and did nothing. The Istanbul airport has lots of signs in Russian giving the women a number to call but they can’t read it if they are stoned

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