In her role as flight attendant, Shelia Frederick was dramatically compelled to act during one particular flight to San Francisco.
A flight attendant’s job involves tending to the vessel’s facilities, as well as to the passengers on the plane. But when stewardess Shelia Frederick found herself in the lavatory during one journey in 2017, she didn’t find a mess. Instead, she was faced with a note – and it carried a terrifying message.
By this point in time, Frederick had already become quite used to working high in the skies. As a matter of fact, she had many years of experience under her belt. Moreover, she’d surely been exposed to specific specialist training which had been particularly impressed upon airline staff since 2009.
But Frederick’s mid-flight discovery in 2017 had nothing to do with the problems many airplane passengers fear. The vessel hadn’t suffered from any mechanical issues, nor had anyone brought a potential weapon on board. Instead, it was merely a note in the bathroom that forced Frederick to spring into action.
Frederick told 10 News in 2017 that she had worked as a flight attendant for the previous decade. Aviation, however, wasn’t the woman’s only vocation. According to her profile on a talent website called StarNow, the Alaska Airlines employee had also picked up experience as an actress, extra and model.
Frederick’s on-camera skills had earned her a gig with
Ebony magazine, as well as spots on HBO and Lifetime shows. Her StarNow profile explained how she had gotten into both her career paths. She wrote, “I love to smile, like being around people – that’s why I’m a flight attendant. Loving working with people and taking risk.”
As it turned out, Frederick’s flight-attendant job ended up putting her into the role of a lifetime. It all started on a flight from Seattle to San Francisco. At first, it may have seemed like an average shift for the stewardess – that is, until she noticed a passenger who looked different from the rest.
It’s not uncommon for a passenger to board a plane and appear out of sorts. Up to 6.5 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from aviophobia, also known as a fear of flying. Even more people than that at least have an aversion to flying, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Indeed, much about the experience can spike a person’s anxiety.
As Boston University’s Intensive Treatment Program for Panic Disorder and Specific Phobias’ director, Todd Farchione could explain flight-based anxiety. He told
Time in 2018, “A lot of it is the lack of control [people] have in the situation. When the doors close, they’re in. They’re stuck… I think that’s often what’s most frightening for people.”
Of course, other fears can play into a person’s flight-based anxiety, too. People worry about a potential crash, or they deal with a personal fear of heights. But often, it has to do with the fact that passengers have no control over their jaunts. As Farchione put it, “They’re at the mercy of the pilot.”
Fortunately, passengers always have a resource in their flight attendants. Indeed, many of these workers will help when they know that a person suffers from a fear of flying. As stewardess Olivia Roqua wrote on Quora in 2015, “It is absolutely the duty of the crew to take care of uneasy passengers and do our best to make them feel comfortable.”
As it happens, flight attendants undergo plenty of training to earn their spot on a cabin crew. They, of course, learn how to handle passengers who have become disorderly. But they also need to know how to undertake first aid and safety procedures, should an emergency situation arise on board.
Over time, airlines have had to add particular training sessions to deal with new and changing threats. In 2009, for instance, U.S. airlines started teaching flight attendants how to pinpoint a passenger that could be a victim of human trafficking. After all, the International Labour Organization estimated in 2018 that a little under 21 million people were being taken advantage of for either sexual slavery or their labor.
Flight attendants who travel in and out of sex-trafficking hubs – San Francisco counts as one such place – receive this specialty training. Indeed, as the Polaris Project has claimed, most instances of trafficking occur within major urban centers. This makes sense, when you consider the transport links that are available in such places.
In the case of San Francisco, the city has a major international airport, as well as other smaller airports nearby. But it also has an extremely diverse backdrop, which makes it easier for traffickers to hide their victims in certain neighborhoods. At least, that’s according to Brian Wo, the co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition.
Wo explained to the Redwood Bark in 2019, “There’s just a lot of ethnic enclaves around the Bay Area. If you’re trafficking someone from another country, it’s really easy to bring them in through the transportation centers. But then also just to hide them in your ethnic area.”
Wo went on, “Often traffickers from other countries will traffic people from their own countries. If you’re a Filipino trafficker, you’ll bring in Filipino ladies to work at your nursing home or your nail salon.” Plus, victim care provider Ambria – who didn’t reveal her last name – told Redwood Bark that San Francisco has a unique economic situation, which sets it up as a human trafficking hub.
Ambria said, “[Gentrification] just causes a lot of vulnerability. If somebody is homeless, they’re more likely to engage in what’s called survival sex, which is a sex act in order to obtain some necessity for life such as food or shelter.” And, of course, many traffickers know how to do their illegal work discreetly.
Fortunately, flight attendants do have some signs to look for if they suspect they have a human trafficking victim on-board their flight. For starters, they might see a young passenger flying with an adult who doesn’t look like a family member or share their last name. This should raise alarm bells.
On top of that, human trafficking victims might board a plane without any luggage. Or they might also remain extremely close to their grownup escort for the duration of the flight. If their hands never separate, the younger passenger may potentially be bonded to their trafficker with a handcuff, which remains concealed.
Other than that, flight attendants are trained to scope out signs of control a trafficker might exert over their victim. For instance, they might not permit the youngster to speak directly to an attendant. So, when they come around with the beverage cart, the victim won’t even order for themselves.
Finally, a flight attendant should note if a younger traveler can’t keep a story straight with regard to their trip. And they should also watch out to see if their adult companion keeps an overly strict eye on them. If so, these might be signs that the kid’s in danger.
In the case of Frederick’s passenger, though, the girl in question just appeared to be in a disheveled state. As Frederick explained to NBC in 2017, the girl – who had been headed for San Francisco from Seattle – looked like she “had been through pure hell.” And that wasn’t all, either.
Frederick happened to notice, too, that her teenage passenger had bruises on her body. In fact, her state stood in stark contrast to her companion’s. The older man next to her donned a look that was both smart and deliberate. So, considering that the pair were traveling together, this seemed strange.
When Frederick made her way to speak to the pair, their behavior raised more than just eyebrows – it raised red flags. For one thing, the flight attendant recalled that the well-dressed man had been speaking for the teenager. Frederick described, “She would not answer me… She would always look at him.”
On top of that, the man would apparently become defensive when Frederick attempted to engage him and the teen in conversation. And this state of affairs gave the cabin crew member pause. As she told WTSP in 2017, “Something in the back of my mind said [that] something is not right.”
Frederick consequently knew that she had to do something to find out exactly what was going on with the quiet teen and her strange companion. So, the flight attendant suggested that the young girl visit the bathroom. And she ultimately did so without the supervision of her well-dressed travel partner.
Getting the girl to go to the airplane lavatory gave Frederick the opportunity to send her a message. So, the flight attendant grabbed a pen and scribbled down a note. She then placed it inside of the bathroom, positioning it so that the girl couldn’t miss it once she got inside.
As Frederick recalled, “I said, ‘If you need help, write it on this note,’ and then I left my phone number at the bottom.” The flight-attendant placed a pen in the bathroom, too, so that the girl could respond. And so when she’d finished in the bathroom, Frederick checked to see if she’d indicated that she really did require help.
Frederick retrieved the note to find a response to her message. The flight attendant explained, “She wrote back on the note and said, ‘I need help.’” It seemed, then, that Frederick’s instincts were correct. And, with that, she sprung into action and approached the pilot with what she had learned.
In alerting the cockpit, Frederick potentially gave the pilot time to reach out to Alaska Airlines’ system-operations-control workers. In this scenario, such staffers would then have looked further into the passengers’ credentials. They might have subsequently been able to find out if the girl and her escort had purchased one-way tickets. If so, this would have been a sign that something was amiss.
In the case of Frederick’s passenger, police met her and her male companion as soon as the plane landed in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, authorities were able to try to discern this man’s intentions. Had he just been taking poor care of the child in his charge, or had he had more sinister plans for her?
As it turned out, the latter was the case – Frederick had intercepted the man on a trek with a soon-to-be human trafficking victim. She had noted the very signs that flight attendants are trained to look for. And in trusting her gut, she had saved someone from a dangerous future.
Even still, not all victims of human trafficking will board planes with their oppressor in tow. And it’s not just flight attendants who have to be on the lookout, either. Denise Miracle, a customer service worker for American Airlines, revealed in 2018 how she, too, had thwarted a potential case of trafficking.
As Miracle recalled in an airline statement, a pair of girls – 15 and 17 years old respectively – came to the airport. They had booked onto a one-way flight to New York City – in first-class seats, no less. Their fare, it turned out, had been paid by a credit card which didn’t correspond to either girl’s name.
On top of that, the teenagers behaved in a way that seemed suspicious. Miracle said, “They kept looking at each other in a way that seemed fearful and anxious. I had a gut feeling that something just wasn’t right.” So, the customer service agent barred the girls from boarding and contacted the police.
When the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Airport Bureau investigated further, they uncovered a chilling tale. The teens had been in contact with a man named Drey via Instagram. This man had invited the pair to New York City, promising them both $2,000 if they would model for him and star in a music video.
So, the girls took him up on the offer, lying to their parents about their whereabouts. Each girl said she was at the other’s house for a sleepover. Then, they snuck to the airport to fly out to New York. Neither girl had any idea that Drey had only booked them one-way tickets.
As when attempts were made to get in touch with Drey, he vanished. His Instagram account disappeared and his phone line went dead. As such, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department suggested that Drey’s efforts may have been an example of attempted human trafficking. Thanks to a quick-thinking customer-service agent like Miracle, though, the girls went home safely.
The same went for the teen at the center of Frederick’s heroic efforts. According to
USA Today, she and the girl even kept in touch over the years. The flight attendant had, indeed, written her phone number on the note she left in the airplane lavatory. “I guess she memorized it, so a few weeks later, she called me,” Frederick said.
After her rescue, the girl went on to lead a normal life – Frederick reported that she had enrolled in college. Her rescue highlighted the need for everyone – from flight attendants to fellow passengers – to be vigilant in the face of such a quiet crime. In that vein, Frederick could only advise to travelers, “If you see something, say something.”