Why can’t the airlines get it right?

Yet again, an airline—this time United—mishandled an unaccompanied minor who was supposed to be escorted to her connecting flight earlier this summer. This time it happened apparently because the person contracted to escort Phoebe to her flight never showed up at the gate in Chicago. Other kids have been put on wrong connecting flights and in at least one case I know of, young teens were left stranded over night when their connecting flight was cancelled.

In this most recent case, Ten-year-old Phoebe Klebahn’s parents were sending her summer camp in Michigan, paying United an extra $99 to make sure she arrived without incident, NBC News reported.  Just imagine their stunned reaction and fear when they got a call from the camp that Phoebe wasn’t on the scheduled flight.

UPDATE:  United issued the following statement on Friday Aug. 17 regarding the matter: ‘United conducted a review of the matter involving the Klebahn’s daughter and found that she was fully supervised during her entire time at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.  It’s unfortunate that she missed her connection, and we regret any confusion and stress that may have been placed on her and her family. We certainly appreciate their business and will strive to provide a better travel experience in the future.”

According to one report from the Travel Industry Association, 16 percent of U.S. adult travelers with children–14.3 million parents–sent their child (or children) under 18 alone on an airplane trip in the past three years.  I sent a 13-year-old off as an unaccompanied minor to camp too.  Southwest Airlines alone carries 300,000 unaccompanied minors a year, many in summer, some more than once a month. Some airlines permit young teens as young as 12 to fly without supervision. You can ask and pay for the service for them if you prefer they aren’t on their own.  But you expect that if the airlines are responsible for your child, they will take care of them. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Phoebe’s mom immediately called United who told her the child was in Michigan.  “So at that point is when I really knew that they had lost her at some level; they didn’t know where she was,” Klebahn told NBC News. “All the worst possible things go through your mind as a mom when you think you have no idea where your child is and she’s 2,000 miles away.”

Phoebe, meanwhile, kept asking to call her parents to no avail, she told NBC.   It sounds like every parent’s worst nightmare. Eventually, Phoebe was found and sent on to camp.  Apparently it took her parents six weeks and prodding by an NBC affiliate before United responded to their complaints and refunded the miles used to buy the ticket and the unaccompanied minor fee.

But that seems to be too little too late.  Whether we like it or not, millions of kids will continue to fly solo—to visit divorced parents and grandparents, to go to school and sports events, to meet a parent traveling on business.  It is part of the world we live in and air lines are supposed to take care of our kids en route. That’s why they charge in some cases as much as a ticket for the service.  Here’s what I think you need to do before putting your child on a flight solo: 

–Whenever possible and even if it costs more, send them nonstop.  If they are connecting, instruct your child to call you when they arrive at the connecting airport and again when they are at the next gate.

–Give them a cell phone (you can get a disposable pre-charged one) and program in all the phone numbers where you can be reached as well as others who could help in an emergency.

–Play the “what if” game with the kids. What if their flight is diverted (airline personnel  are supposed to take care of them)  what if no one arrives to escort them to their connection, as happened to Phoebe (identify themselves to the gate agent and immediately call mom or dad and have them talk to the airline official on the ground)  if grandpa is late picking them up (airline personnel are supposed to stay with them until grandpa arrives)  what if they feel sick on board (tell the flight attendant)

–Arrive at the airport early because you will be required to fill out the necessary forms.. Make sure you have the names, phone numbers and addresses for those picking up your child at the other end. Give your child a card with that information as well. Make sure they know where to reach you as well.

–Make sure they know where they are going and instruct them to speak up if the pilot says they are going to Boston and they know they are supposed to be going to Cleveland, they need to speak up—immediately!  (That’s happened too!)

–Don’t rely on the airline to entertain or feed the kids. Make sure to pack a sandwich, empty water bottle they can fill once through security, snacks and plenty to entertain your child. Explain to the younger kids that they’ll have to entertain themselves that the flight attendants are too busy to play with them.  Stash a new toy, movie, or book in their backpack along with a favorite treat.

–If your teen is old enough to fly without supervision but looks young, bring along  a copy of her birth certificate or passport.  Children under 18 are not required to show photo ID.

–Make sure teens who are flying as adults know they must speak up if their flight is delayed or a connecting flight cancelled so that airline personnel can make sure they’re not stranded on their own. (That’s happened to young teens.)  Make sure they have some money—a pre-paid debit or credit card –and a cell phone.

–Instruct those picking up the children to arrive early and to bring photo id. The airline won’t release your children without it.

–Stay at the gate until your child’s flight is airborne– In the event of a mechanical problem that brings the plane back.

As for Phoebe, she recently arrived home safely from camp—via a different airline.