Houston Airports employee trusts intuition, steps in to save human trafficking victim

The employee is one of 30,000 badged employees trained by Houston Airports to identify and safely report human trafficking to law enforcement. 

June 12, 2023

HOUSTON - A veteran aviation worker, Monica Phillips first worked for an airline before joining the Airport Operations Communications team for Houston Airports. Trained in working with all types of people in various aviation scenarios, Phillips is now responsible for security and information for Houston Airports. Answering phone calls from customers is part of her job.

“Friday, June 2, I took a call from a man who claimed he was looking for his 52-year-old mother,” said Monica Phillips, Houston Airports Operations Communicator, of the call she received at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. “He said that his mother had boarded a flight in Lubbock, Texas bound for Houston on Sunday, May 28. And that he hadn’t heard from her.”

That was the first red flag. 

Phillips was curious as to how worried the son must be for his mother, if he waited five days to call Bush Airport. Phillips transferred the caller to the Houston Police Department, which has an office at the 4-Star Skytrax airport. When Phillips followed up with the police officer, she was baffled. The caller refused to file a missing person’s report with police. 

That was the second red flag. 

“I knew something wasn’t right about his story,” recalled Phillips. “I had this gut feeling that this was a case of human trafficking.”

Houston Airports is ready to welcome more than 13 million passengers to its airports this summer. Approximately 134,000 passengers are expected to walk through Bush Airport each day between Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

It’s sometimes said that human trafficking is an “invisible crime” because its signs are not always obvious to the untrained eye. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, criminals also tend to travel with their victims during holidays – when more people are on the roads or at airports, because it’s easier to blend into the crowd. 

Monica Phillips Houston Airports
Monica Phillips, Houston Airports Operations Communicator

Sunday, May 28 was the day before Memorial Day, a busy holiday travel weekend. 

Phillips arrived at work earlier on Wednesday, June 7. As she crossed the ticketing lobby of Terminal A at Bush Airport, Phillips said she spotted a woman who was struggling to communicate with Houston police. Phillips had a gut feeling it was the woman the caller had been searching for earlier in the month. 

The woman, who only spoke Hungarian, struggled to communicate with police. Phillips leaned on translation technology and asked if the woman’s name was the name shared by the caller. She said, yes. Phillips explained to the woman that her son had called looking for her. When the woman didn’t recognize the son’s name Houston Police called back the number. Because the man had called Bush Airport, the call data was logged. The phone number, Phillips said, had been disconnected. 

That was the third red flag. 

“I have a friend with United Airlines who speaks Hungarian. We got him involved to translate. What we gathered from her story was, she traveled from Lubbock to Houston with two men on May 28. The trio was ultimately bound for Europe. When they landed at Bush Airport, she got away and was hiding in the terminals,” said Phillips. “I can’t begin to imagine how scared she was. To be in a new city, unable to speak English, hiding for your life in an unfamiliar airport.” 

Houston Police alerted CBP Officers to the unfolding investigation. Law enforcement learned the two men had the 52-year-old’s passport. She checked a bag in Lubbock but didn’t recover it. She had traveled with a purse, but in her rush to flee, she lost it at the airport. Phillips said the purse was turned in to airport Lost and Found and later returned to the woman. 

“CBP officers took her to a Houston-area hospital, because she was in bad shape,” said Phillips. “Ten days of hiding in an airport - with no real food - she needed medical attention.”  

Phillips said the woman did not want to tell the interpreter what she had experienced. “But I do know law enforcement is now investigating and are classifying her as a victim of human trafficking,” said Phillips. 

Phillips believes the woman spent days hiding in the airport’s restrooms. Phillips doesn’t know what happened to her after the woman was seen by doctors. The Houston Airports employee is praying for the best. 

“I sometimes have a gut feeling about things, and it turns out to be correct. I just knew this lady needed help,” said Phillips. “Who wants to hide in an airport terminal while fearing for her life.”

Federal statistics reflect that 70% of victims are trafficked through airports.

What is human trafficking? | Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality.

Traffickers might use | violence, manipulation, false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.

People targeted by traffickers | Those with psychological or emotional vulnerabilities, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, victims of natural disasters and/or political instability

“This isn’t a crime exclusive too far off places,” said Saba Abashawl, Houston Airports Chief External Affairs Officer. “Our hearts and prayers are with victims. Rescues like the one that happened at Bush Airport this week are why Houston Airports is committed to doing everything it can to help end human trafficking.”

In October 2019, Houston Airports became the first airport system in the country to formally partner with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Blue Lightning Initiative. Through the initiative, Houston Airports has trained more than 30,000 badged airport employees on how to identify and safely report human trafficking. The training continues. 

The commitment of Houston Airports to end human trafficking is why Houston Airports organized and hosted a panel discussion for 450 community members in November 2022. 

“If you have someone that doesn’t speak the language and is from a different culture and is sitting in the terminal, to me that’s a huge red flag,” said Phillips. “I would like to help the whole world. I know it’s not always possible, but if we lean into our training and trust our intuition, we just might save a life.” 

Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims.

Click here for more information and resources for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

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