United Airlines 'loses' 10-year-old girl, torments parents

Airline says it has 'reached out to apologize' and is 'reviewing this matter'

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As a father of three 10-year-old children, I read this account of United Airlines "losing" a 10-year-old girl (and then her baggage; a "crazier" story in and of itself) with an extra measure of astonishment. But you don't need to be a parent to imagine the fear experienced by young Phoebe Klebahn - traveling for the first time as an "unaccompanied minor" -- and her parents, Annie and Perry Klebahn.

A United spokesperson, responding to my email this morning in record time for such a matter, says: "We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing this matter." (Full statement below.) In the meantime, we'll let a lengthy letter the parents wrote tell their story and United's online "customer commitment" document speak for itself. They offer quite a contrast. We'll start with the 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 daughter 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.

UNITED: We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. ... Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.

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.

UNITED: We will provide our customers who require additional assistance, including individuals with disabilities and unaccompanied minors, with the attention, respect and care they deserve.

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.

UNITED: We welcome young customers on our flights. We do, however, have rules about when a minor can travel alone and when an adult must accompany the minor during travel. ... Children ages 5-11 may travel without an adult but are required to use our unaccompanied minor service. There is a fee for this service and paperwork to complete prior to travel.

In the meantime 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 she 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.

UNITED: We work hard to get you to your destination on time, as scheduled. There may be times when weather, air traffic control, operational or service considerations lead to flight delays, cancellations or diversions. When this happens we will make available the most current, accurate information about your flight's status that we have.

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 10 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. 

UNITED: We work hard to get your checked bags to you on time. If your checked bags are delayed or misplaced, we will make every reasonable effort to deliver your bags within 24 hours.

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 2 p.m. after we called camp and they went to pick it up.

UNITED: We respond quickly to our customers' complaints. If you have a complaint regarding our services or our product, we want to hear from you.

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.

UNITED: If you have expenses resulting from a baggage delay and are eligible to receive compensation, we will compensate you for reasonable and necessary out-of-pocket expenses.

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. It's 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.

Regards,

Annie Klebahn

Perry Klebahn

Here's the full statement from a United spokesman: "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."

It's the least they could do.

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