Airline And Hotel Employees Use Their Prejudices To Report You For Crimes

See something, say something isn’t just for airport security, it’s supposed to stop human trafficking and travel industry employees are asked to speak up when their prejudices training makes them think something could be amiss. However as Bruce Schneier says, when amateurs do security you get amateur security.

An African American social service worker is suing American Airlines after she was accused of kidnapping a one year old white baby while traveling with him on a flight.

Reportedly a passenger on board a flight from Dallas Fort Worth to Ontario, California told a flight attendant that the woman was “holding a kidnap victim.” In fact she was returning from a two week court-ordered visit for the child with his father.

Though the boy was light-skinned and blond, he was mistaken for an alleged missing child from New York City who was 5 years old and Hispanic with dark hair, according to the lawsuit. Airline employees took the boy from Murphy’s arms and threatened her with force if she didn’t comply, the lawsuit read.

Murphy, who had an ID, the boy’s birth certificate and a court order, was detained for about an hour before being allowed to re-board the plane and the flight was held up for about 45 minutes, the lawsuit read.

It’s not that long ago that armed Port Authority police boarded an American Airlines plane at New York JFK because a flight attendant saw an Asian American woman follow her hispanic husband to the lavatory (he was feeling unwell) and saw that they shared an orange juice. The flight attendant called for a sex trafficking investigation.

Airlines train their crews to spot potential human trafficking, the training clearly isn’t very good and flight attendants aren’t law enforcement investigators. And when law enforcement does actually get involved? This United Airlines pilot – who was an actual pimp running Houston brothels – escaped jail time.

This isn’t just airlines. Hotel staff are trained by the Department of Homeland Security to report guests with too many used condoms in the trash, as well as:

  • frequent use of the “Do Not Disturb” sign (you’re tired and don’t want to be bothered)
  • guests who avert their eyes or don’t make eye contact (you’re tired and don’t want to be bothered)
  • people with “lower quality clothing than companions” (no one ever accused me of fashion)
  • people who have “suspicious tattoos” (which just means you’re from Austin or Portland)
  • having multiple computers, cell phones, and other technology (you’re a blogger)
  • “presence of photography equipment” (you’re a blogger)
  • refusal of cleaning services for multiple days (you ‘made a green choice’)
  • rooms paid for with cash or a rechargeable credit card (you have to unload your gift card purchases somehow)
  • guests with few personal possessions (you refuse to check a bag because you’re a frequent traveler)

Meanwhile Motel 6s in Phoenix worked with ICE, reporting suspecting illegal immigrants.

If a young Julia Roberts accompanies Richard Gere into what’s now the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire you know what’s going on, you’ve seen that movie, but even there it’s consenting adults and she was working for herself.

It’s a problem when the government trains private people to snoop on customers’ business and look for little ‘clues’ that are perfectly normal behavior. We’re not going to stop exploitation of children with prejudice and poor training.

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, 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. Or at customs and immigration after as agent looks at your surname ” where are you from?”
    My answer- Chicago.
    Everything looks strange to the uneducated.

  2. While I agree with your basic theme in this post, in this specific instance where a passenger makes that claim and reports it to an airline employee, they really have to do something. The claim cannot be ignored and would need to be investigated.

    As long as the alleged victim is not in imminent physical danger, it seems that law enforcement should be notified immediately and that an airline employee should refrain from using any physical force. The cabin door would need to be closed to prevent a potential attempted exit.


  3. Gary, what is the solution? Human trafficking does exist. Indeed it is rampant. What is an hour of inconvenience vs. a person entering a world of sex slavery? What is an acceptable rate of “false positives”? Five persons inconvenienced vs. saving one person’s life? Ten? I don’t know. No amount of training is going to make any person’s judgment perfect. There should be procedures in place to quickly check things out when there is suspicious behavior. Here it really could have been a quick document check.

  4. Ron,

    Didn’t you read the story? Probably not.
    “Murphy, who had an ID, the boy’s birth certificate and a court order, was detained for about an hour before ”

    A quick look at the documents should have been sufficient and didn’t require taking the boy from the parent. And the employee should have been discipline for stupidity (sadly you probably can’t do that so we go the lawsuit route and make the employer pay).

  5. Kids do get kidnapped and trafficked. Airlines are told to be on the look out for it. A parent who is traveling with a kid without both parents gets hounded sometimes at checkin. Of course a woman of one race traveling on an airplane with a baby of a completely different race (not mixed) is going to be concerning to people who hear about kidnapping in the news. It’s very odd for kids to be flying with anyone but their biological parents at that age.

    She gave her ID, the court order, and the birth certificate. She was let back on the plane. The system worked. It’s very sad in the first place a social worker is bringing a child from one parent to another on a airplane. What a sad world.

  6. Well said Gary. Unfortunately it seems unlikely that we’ll see things changing as long as a significant portion of the populace pretends that stuff like this is normal. If nothing else, bringing it up is a first step though. Hopefully other bloggers will follow suit.

  7. That’s messed up. This is iron clad proof that you can’t judge anyone or a book by it’s cover. Just because she was with a child doesn’t mean she’s doing wrong.

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