A day in the life of a kid just trying to get home

As we’ve noted before, no other industry works as hard as the airline industry to drive customers away.

Today’s airline travel story comes from Bob Sutton Work Matters blog, which details how United Airlines lost a 10-year old, who was traveling as an unaccompanied minor. Nobody showed up in Chicago — Chicago, mind you — to help her transfer to the correct flight. Apparently, United contracts the “minor escort” service to a third party.

A United employee refused to help find the girl, the blog claims, until the parents put a guilt trip on her.

“When she came back she said should was going off her shift and could not help. My husband then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said “yes”–he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do? She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help. 15 minutes later she found Phoebe in Chicago and found someone to let us talk to her and be sure she was okay.”

The blog provides the entire letter of complaint (in Word format) here.

The couple didn’t hear anything back from the airline until a weekend TV anchor in San Francisco started working on the story. United has apologized.

This is reminiscent of the famous “United breaks guitars” bit of 2009. Well, except that it’s about a 10 year old girl and not a guitar. And United returned her intact.

Update 1:21 p.m. – I realize that some people don’t have Word, so here’s the entire complaint letter:

To Whom it May Concern:

I was tempted to start this with the words “it concerns no one” after the unnerving experience we just had with United Airlines losing our 10 year-old daughters as an unaccompanied minor traveling alone on June 30th, 2012.

The experience was so unbelievable that we had to write it down here, and send it to you; despite knowing no one at United reads or responds to anything in regards to their customers. It’s for our own sanity and perhaps anyone in the press and travel reviews that are willing to listen.

We dropped our 10-year old Phoebe at the San Francisco airport on Saturday, June 30th for her first flight as an unaccompanied minor. She was traveling through Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan to summer camp for two weeks. The United personnel who gave her the wristband and instructions told her very loud and clear to “only go with someone with a United badge on and that she would be accompanied at all times”. We waited with her and sent her off and did not leave SFO until the flight was airborne. We then tracked the flight on-line and watched it arrived on time in Chicago. We knew that she had 1:15 to transfer to the Traverse City flight. We then watched on-line as that flight took off and landed on time. We then waited and waited for the call from camp that she arrived safely. That call did not come. Instead we received a frantic call from the camp that Phoebe was not on the flight, nor did the United person in Traverse City know why she was not on the flight.

I proceeded to call United and was put on hold for 20 minutes (imagine if you are a parent waiting 20 minutes not knowing where your 10 year old is). When someone (from India) finally took the call they first told me that she had indeed arrived in Traverse City and that I was mistaken. Then (only when I started to panic on the phone) she put me on hold again for 10 more minutes only to come back and tell me Phoebe was still in Chicago and had missed her connection. When I asked how she could have missed it given everything was 100% on time she said, “it does not matter” she is still in Chicago and “I am sure she is fine”. When I asked why no one called the camp or us she could not tell me. When I asked her to please confirm where Phoebe was in Chicago and who she was with she could not tell me. When I asked to speak with her to be sure she was fine she said that was not possible. When I asked frantically to talk to her supervisor she put me on hold for 40 minutes.

In the mean time my husband also started to call United using his Premier status phone line and number. He more quickly got someone on the phone (in the USA) and asked for help. The first person he spoke with was not able to help but she finally transferred him to someone who also confirmed that Phoebe did not make her flight. When he asked why she could not say but put him on hold. When she came back she told him that in fact the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago simply “forgot to show up” to transfer her to the next flight. He was dumbfounded as neither of us had been told in writing or in person that United outsourced the unaccompanied minor services to a third party vendor. We were shocked to learn this. Regardless, he asked if she could help us find Phoebe to be sure she was okay and he got put on hold again. When she came back she said should was going off her shift and could not help. My husband then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said “yes”–he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do? She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help. 15 minutes later she found Phoebe in Chicago and found someone to let us talk to her and be sure she was okay.

From the moment of the first phone call from camp informing us that Phoebe did not arrive in Traverse City to when we spoke with her first hand it took almost an hour. But she had already been in Chicago for over two hours. She landed and no one came to get her. The attendants where busy and could not help her she told us. She told them she had a flight to catch to camp and they told her to wait. She asked three times to use a phone to call us and they told her to wait. When she missed the flight she asked if someone had called camp to make sure they knew and they told her “yes–we will take care of it”. No one did. She was sad and scared and no one helped.

End of story? No–it gets crazier if that is possible.

She finally made a flight to Traverse City four hours later and we informed camp that she would be arriving late that night and that they needed to make a trip back to get her. They did and then called to let us know that she arrived but that her luggage did not. I was back on the phone with United (in India) and my husband with United Premier (in the USA) with 40 minutes of waiting for one and the other telling us they could not find her bags but to call back in two hours or check to see if it made the next flight. Phoebe went off to camp and made the most of having no sheets, pillows or clothes for what capped off one of the most stressful days of her short ten years.

The next morning we were on the phone again and were told by United (in India) that they still could not locate her bag and then by United Premier that they could not help anymore because the baggage department was no longer something they could deal with and that we had to call the special baggage number (in India that I had already called). Three more sessions of being on hold with India ensued–for 45 minutes each and one of these was a non-stop request to speak to the person in charge (who ended up being one Tom Tang in Delhi who claims to be the most senior person but could “in no way help me”)—AND three more flights to Traverse City that day left from Chicago and her bag was not on any of them.

We then went back to trying United Premier again and my husband tried his “are you a Mom” tactic with the next woman on the phone who agreed to help the sad 10 year old girl at camp in 100 degree heat with no bathing suit, sheets or change of clothes (and no store to shop in for 45 miles). She put him on hold and 30-minutes later got back on having personally had someone in Chicago baggage locate the camp bag and describe it to us on the phone. We confirmed it was Phoebe’s and they confirmed it would be on the next flight to Traverse City. We let camp know and sent them to the airport again to get it (United bags that arrive to TC don’t get delivered to the camp until the next day they know from experience so they went personally). We thought that was it. AGAIN–The bag did not arrive–camp confirmed this. We started the same process again and another 90 minutes later we were assured by a United person that it would be on the next flight–“confirmed”. We sent camp again to the airport–the bag again did not arrive. That was the last flight of the day. Phoebe was now going to bed again with no word and no clothes or bedding.

The next morning we started the same process again (day three now mind you) and had someone assure us it would make the early flight but we asked for the Traverse City United baggage desk number to confirm its arrival before we sent camp to retrieve it this time to be sure (they would not agree to give the number until we begged them by telling the whole saga). It finally arrived at noon on the second flight and was to Phoebe by 2pm after we called camp and they went to pick it up.

End of story right? Not really.

We logged a formal complaint via United Premier for the unaccompanied minor situation and were blown away to learn that when you file a complaint with United you cannot file it yourself. You have to tell someone on the phone what you are filing for, let him or her write your story down and then THEY file it. We asked to have them read it back to us to verify the facts, we also asked to read it ourselves and both requests were denied. We asked for them to focus on the fact that they “forgot” a 10-year old in the airport and never called camp or us to let us know. We also asked that they focus on the fact that we were not informed in any way that United uses a third party service for this. They said they would “do their best” to file the complaint per our situation. We asked if we would be credited the $99 unaccompanied minor fee (given she was clearly not accompanied). They said they weren’t sure.

We asked if the bags being lost for three days and camp having to make 5 trips to the airport vs. one was something we would be compensated for (given we pay camp $25 every time they go to the airport). They said that we would have to follow up with that separately with United baggage as a separate complaint. They also said that process was the same–United field what they hear from you but you do not get to file the complaint yourselves.

The good news:

• Phoebe arrived at camp safely after an unbelievably traumatic experience

• Phoebe’s bags arrived safely (albeit three days later)

• United employee Deborah #M2747 is a Mom and was amazing despite her United training

• United employee Lisa #A8183 is a Mom and was amazing despite her United training

The bad news is such a long list and so crazy I don’t know where to start:

• United outsourced a service to accompany small children without informing parents in advance of taking their children into their care–HUGE liability

• United neglected to care for and keep safe the unaccompanied minor that they took into their care by forgetting her and having all their staff ignore her requests for help–HUGE liability

• United neglected to inform the minor’s parents and/or the minor’s designated pick up contact that she was delayed (or should I say forgotten?)–HUGE liability

• United in India was completely unable to help us on any account (except to tell us incorrectly that Phoebe had indeed arrived safely when she had not)

• United baggage is completely inept and has no business being in business

• United has made the travel process and experience unbearable by de-humanizing any and all experiences UNLESS you are a Premier member AND you beg someone to “be a parent” AND they break the rules ONLY then can they maybe help you

• United’s complaint process is unacceptable–you lost our child and we still have not heard form you that you are even sorry and we can have our $99 fee back

• I need to stop now or I will start typing things that are even more unflattering than the above list

We have flown Untied for 40 years, my husband is a Premier member and flies all over the world with United, we have a United credit card, and we were very loyal United followers. Phoebe would have grown up to be a loyal United follower as well I am sure, but now she “never wants to fly United again”.

We have never in all our collective years had such an unbelievably terrible customer service experience–not ever. We estimate that we spent around 18 hours collectively on the phones, on hold, trying to track down Phoebe, her bags and our peace of mind. Its hard to imagine how you run a business this way, how you get away with things so close to child endangerment, and how you sleep at night training your service employees how to not be of service.

End of story? You tell us. As far as we are concerned it can’t get any worse.


Annie Klebahn

Perry Klebahn

  • essjayok

    United’s treatment of this family and the little girl while she was asking for help is so dehumanizing it just makes me sick.

  • David G

    I wonder if they would have gotten a different response during the ordeal trying to track their daughter if they had call the Chicago or airport police departments to report a missing 10 year old child.

  • JackU

    Thanks, Bob. 😉

    I don’t usually fly out to visit my family, I usually take the train. But I will be flying in a couple of weeks on… UNITED. (Actually I think this is what used to be Continental into Newark.) Fortunately I’m not an unaccompanied minor and I don’t intend to check baggage. What surprises me about the story is that the bags didn’t make it on the original flight. Since they should have been checked through you’d think they would have made it on the plane even without the little girl.

  • vjacobsen

    Remember, Bob, when I was tweeting you during that big storm in June and my mom’s flight had to abandon the landing at MSP? She was on a United flight. Nobody knew where her flight was for 45 minutes. AWFUL customer service then and the she had terrible service after. My sister lost baggage on a United flight over Christmas. It took 8 calls to their TERRIBLE customer service to resolve the issue.

    There is nothing more awful than not knowing where my mother was for that almost-hour. After the fact, she was treated terribly in Chicago. I have no doubt it’s just standard operation to be that bad.

    Say what you will about everything else, but Delta, especially via twitter, has done an amazing job every time I’ve flown them in the last year and a half. Their twitter account is EXACTLY what every company should emulate.

  • Snyder

    This isn’t nearly as bad as losing track of a child or a mom, but my only experience with United was a couple weeks ago when I was picking up my friend at MSP after she came in from Chicago, the final leg of a flight from Ireland. For whatever reason, the flight ended up being delayed by about an hour, which my friend was fortunately able to tell me about before boarding in Chicago.

    However, the Arrivals board at MSP never showed any updates on this, continually showing the flight number as being “on time” even after the scheduled arrival had come and gone. Even better, a different flight from Chicago came in around the time my friend’s flight was supposed to arrive and the flight number for that one wasn’t even on the Arrivals board at all! Why even have that thing if you cannot be bothered to use it?

  • Jeff

    The demise of Northwest (Northworst) Airlines took away one of my favorite jokes, that went something like this…

    “Northwest is a terrible airline. No question. But we fliers don’t have any right to complain. After all, they tell you upfront that they are a terrible airline. They are so upfront about it, they made it their slogan! “Some people JUST know how to fly.” They don’t know how to book tickets quickly. They don’t have good customer service and fix problems. They don’t know how to get your bags to the right airport at the right time. They DO know how to FLY – their planes almost never crash. But they non-flying stuff? That stuff they don’t know how or what to do.”

    I hate flying these-days. The only thing that makes it bearable is flying out of the Humphrey terminal…er, I mean Terminal Two.

  • Roger

    Thanks for sharing. HuffPost says that at least United has appologized, unlike the famous United Breaks Guitars incident. Maybe a contribution to the girl’s college fund would be good too.

    “We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing this matter. What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers. We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn’s account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge. We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.”

  • Tyler

    Shame on United – this is despicable.

    That being said, in this day and age, what parent would send their kid to camp via airline, unaccompanied, without a cell phone? A prepaid phone could have alleviated an awful lot of turmoil and concern in this situation.

    Still, it’s United’s fault here, I think.

  • Bob Collins

    They paid to have her escorted between flights. And maybe they didn’t want her spending summer camp on a cellphone.

  • David G


    since 9/11, checked luggage is supposed to be matched to a person actually on the plane.

    So when the girl didn’t board her flight out of Chicago, her luggage should have been removed from the flight before it took off.

  • Sarah

    When I was ten years old (circa 1997), I flew as an unaccompanied minor to visit family in Colorado. I was a very anxious, shy child (and afraid to fly) so the support I received from the plane staff and passengers was incredibly comforting. I was assigned to a stewardess on the flight and she took me to my seat, checked on me regularly, and took me off the plane, making sure I got to my family safely. I remember feeling so special and cared for, and, considering that I was very easily rattled at that age, it was a great feeling.

    I can’t even imagine what Phoebe went through emotionally that day. Even the strongest of 10-year-olds would have felt the sting of abandonment and lack of support provided by the airline. She didn’t even have the chance to call her parents! This situation is utterly ridiculous. I hope United comes to their senses and issues a proper apology- not that it takes away from the stress this family endured. Shame on them!

  • Colleen

    As most of you have said, United is completely in the wrong! But I have to agree with others who have said, why would you let your 10 year old fly alone? In this day and age it seems absolutely crazy to me, especially with a layover. If a child isn’t old enough to stay home alone, why are they allowed to fly alone? I spent many summers at camp, and flew out of state multiple times a year due to parents in different states. Never did I fly alone at such a young age. I am glad my parents at least had the good sense to make sure of that!