Ben Schlappig

Published: June 24, 2021

-One Mile At A Time


This is an unfortunate situation — while the flight attendant may have been well intentioned, this should have been handled very differently.

Delta frequent flyer’s open letter to CEO Ed Bastian

Peter Espinosa, who is a Delta two million mile flyer and Diamond Medallion member, has written an open letter to Delta CEO Ed Bastian on LinkedIn. This is regarding what happened in first class on a flight from Minneapolis to Dallas the Friday before Father’s Day, as he was traveling with his 20-year-old daughter.

Espinosa’s daughter has Fragile X Syndrome, the most common inherited cause of autism and intellectual disabilities worldwide. As it’s described, people with this suffer from extreme anxiety and an inability to make eye contact, and are also easily overwhelmed, especially when questioned.

Espinosa notes that a flight attendant became “focused” on interacting with his daughter:

During the flight our flight attendant noticed my daughter’s anxiety and became focused on interacting with her. He kept trying to ask her direct questions, only making my daughter Rachel that much more anxious. I attempted to intervene, but he kept insisting that he needed a direct answer from her. As my daughter teared up I finally insisted and said “she cannot answer you”. His reply to her was “do you only speak Spanish?” I thought this was a curious question by him. He then looked at a piece of paper in his hand and asked me if my name was Espinosa? I said yes. I am Pete Espinosa and this is my daughter Rachel. I asked why is he so intent with speaking with my daughter? and he replied he was simply doing random greetings of customers. He thanked me for being a Delta Million Mile flier and left.

That was apparently the extent of the unusual interaction onboard, but when the plane landed in Dallas, it was met by four police officers, as there had been reports of Espinosa being engaged in human trafficking. He and his daughter were taken into separate areas and questioned. A police officer said that the Delta crew had accused him of human trafficking, but that it was clear that they hadn’t been properly trained.

A few more things to note:

  • Espinosa has “for years” asked Delta to put an indicator in his SkyMiles profile noting he travels with his daughter with special needs
  • Espinosa believes he was racially profiled for being Hispanic; I think that’s totally fair, since all the data I’ve seen suggests that minorities and multiracial families are more likely to be accused of trafficking
  • Espinosa called Delta customer care the day after his flight to express his dissatisfaction at the situation, and was told that in the future he should find a way to separate from his daughter and notify the flight crew of his daughter’s special needs

This is just a terrible situation…

For the past few years, the airline industry has proudly highlighted how it is training employees to spot human trafficking. The challenge is that it seems that they’ve trained employees just enough to get themselves in trouble, but not enough to do this in an intelligent way.

Did the flight attendant really think that the man’s daughter was being trafficked? Probably. Should this traumatic situation have been avoided? Yes.

I get that this is a complicated matter. Maybe Espinosa’s recommendation of including information about this in his SkyMiles profile is more complicated than it sounds, since including health & medical information about travelers opens up a whole new can of worms.

But if flight attendants are going to investigate trafficking, they need to be better trained and have better resources. For example, does it really make sense that the next step from a brief conversation was to call the police? Shouldn’t the logical follow-up have been that someone on the ground takes a look at Espinosa’s SkyMiles profile, and notices he often travels with the same person, indicating she’s not being trafficked? That would have prevented this altogether.

For so long we’ve been taught “if you see something, say something,” but there should be limits to that. Along similar lines, we’ve seen a countless number of stories of people being removed from flights for speaking Arabic, because they “seemed suspicious.” Just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re suspicious, and in my opinion there should be a higher standard for making accusations than what’s displayed here.

Bottom line

A Delta frequent flyer traveling with his special needs daughter was met by four police officers upon landing last Friday, as he was accused of human trafficking. Flight attendants have basic training in spotting human trafficking, and the special needs daughter exhibited many of the same traits.

This is just a really unfortunate situation. Even if the flight attendant believed that the daughter was being trafficked, there needs to be a better process in place for investigating these matters other than calling cops. For example, in this case the situation could have been avoided if someone at Delta on the ground just reviewed his travel history, and noticed he frequently travels with his daughter.

I hope that airlines review their policies around spotting human trafficking following this incident.