Saturday, July 17, 2010

Unaccompanied Minor Travel FAIL

Today, my daughter traveled from Grandma and Grandpa's house back home on an airplane for the first time.  Grandma and Grandpa were terrific - they drove her from our house to theirs to spend the week, showed her a great time, then bought her a one-way plane ticket to come home.

Unfortunately, that's where the trouble began.

Grandpa bought the ticket for my daughter using their online ticket reservation system.  As a 10-yr-old, she should have popped up on their online system as requiring "unaccompanied minor" status.  For whatever reason (maybe the website didn't ask?), her age didn't register on the website's radar and Grandpa was able to purchase the ticket.  That's ok, she should have popped up on someone's radar when she checked in, right?


At the airport check-in counter, Grandpa was able to check our daughter in for her flight and escort her to the gate WITHOUT someone questioning the fact that a 10-yr-old was traveling without an adult on a regular ticket.  According to United's website, all minors under the age of 12 are required to travel under "unaccompanied minor" status.  Why this was not noticed is completely beyond me and highly disturbing.

The next FAIL took place on the flight itself - why didn't the flight attendants notice that a child under the age of 12 was traveling alone but not listed on their "unaccompanied minor" roster??  She was not asked any questions, nor was she escorted off the plane; she just "followed everybody else off the plane".

When my husband arrived at the airport ticket counter to get a gate pass to retrieve our daughter, it took roughly 30 minutes to get things sorted out so that he could get her.  They confirmed that she was not on their "unaccompanied minor" list (he doesn't think our daughter's age was even in the system), but after multiple ID checks (thank heavens that we had our daughter's "SmileSafe Kids" ID card sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Lifetouch - that was a huge help in getting things sorted out!!), he finally procured a gate pass and went on his way.  So thanks to the ticket counter for giving my husband a gate pass, but next time, please provide the gate number.

Without a gate number, my husband had to wander around aimlessly once he got through security looking for an arrivals display to find out what gate our daughter's flight was at, but there weren't any.  To that end, Dulles' Travelers Aid earns a big FAIL today - they didn't have any arrival information for my husband who was trying to find out which gate our daughter was arriving at (since the United counter didn't tell him). They actually recommended that he exit the secure area, go to baggage claim to find the arriving gate on one of the monitors there, and come back in through a 45-minute security line!  Good thing my husband is a pretty smart guy and ignored them!  He used basic logic to determine which terminal to try for United domestic flights based on listed departures.  Bonus points were earned by Air France's Customer Service desk (lucky my husband knows they're a United partner), who actually helped my husband figure out which gate our daughter's flight was arriving at!

Massive FAIL number 4? 5? for the fact that my daughter was able to deplane without anyone from United noticing.  A kind passenger did ask if she was looking for someone (since a confused and obviously alone child standing in the middle of a boarding area should be a dead giveaway that something's wrong), but no one else offered to help.  Thank heavens (again!!) that my daughter had the presence of mind to realize that something wasn't right when her dad wasn't there and that she should go to Customer Service.  When she arrived there, they apparently were pretty shocked that an unaccompanied minor was standing there without an adult in tow, looking for her father.  Our daughter was able to give them our house phone number, and they called to ask if someone was going to be there to pick her up.  I gave them my husband's cell number and they were able to contact him.  Turns out he was one gate away and he was happily reunited with our daughter at Customer Service (thanks to those folks for allowing her to wait there!).

So all in all, today's experience with United's unaccompanied minor travel procedures was one big, fat FAIL.  If Grandpa mistakenly got the wrong ticket, I can see how that can happen. However, it is a serious security lapse that she was able to check her luggage and get her tickets AT THE COUNTER without someone noticing or asking questions about her age and travel status.  United needs to review the verification procedures for passenger age on its web sales site, and review their procedures for check-in to prevent their most vulnerable passengers from slipping through the cracks.

Again, thank you to all those who helped our daughter today!  United - do better next time!

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