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

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

By Paul McNamara on Tue, 08/14/12 - 10:25am.

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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.