I’ve received hundreds of notifications now and been ask to comment in the media about the recent issue with United Airlines where 10 year old Phoebe Klebahn was traveling as an unaccompanied adult from San Francisco to Michigan with a connection along the way . Her parents had paid a premium to have her met and escorted at the connecting airport. United had outsourced the job of escorting Phoebe to another company and, for whatever reason, that company failed to do their job and no one was there to meet Phoebe. She missed her connection and when her flight got to Michigan, where she was to arrive to attend summer camp, Phoebe wasn’t on it and her parents were notified. Unfortunately no United employee took ownership of the issue and for a short time Phoebe was left on her own and her parents were left uninformed creating stress and, I imagine, panic until they could locate their daughter. Eventually an off duty employee, after pleading from Phoebe’s parents, did the right thing and got her going to where she needed to be. United apologized and refunded the family their money for the escort fee.
Fortunately there were no serious implications from this incident but it’s worth commenting on for a few reasons. Most importantly, anything concerning children needs to be taken seriously and United seem to have made a mistake in who they chose to outsource a pretty basic, but essential service. They did this to save money I presume and charged $99 for that service. Clearly something went wrong and this mistake will cost the airline dearly in brand damage. Nobody really cares who the company was that didn’t do their job because, as far as the consumer is concerned, it was United’s job. UA took their $99 and will carrying the brunt of the mess-up. The lesson here: don’t outsource jobs that can embarrass you if they are done by companies who provide worse service than you do. I’d personally like to know the name of company that forgot Phoebe so I can never pay them be responsible for my kids.
Another point is that there were several UA employees who knew Phoebe’s situation and did not leap into action to solve it. That I find troubling as well. It’s one thing to be insensitive to someone’s baggage needs if you’re busy doing your specific job, but we’re talking about 10 year old girl here. A lost child trumps everything and if there’s any question within the UA culture about what the priority should have been concerning Phoebe, then I hope this incident serves to put that question to bed. It shouldn’t require an incentive to act to help a child, but maybe the answer needs to be this simple: in the future when a United employee discovers an unaccompanied passenger who was forgotten by the escort, they should be expected to drop what they’re doing and see that the child is properly cared for and escorted according to plan. In addition to be commended by management for taking a leadership role, they should get the $99 that the outsourced company neither earned nor deserves. That would prevent future incidents like this from occurring and build brand loyalty to UA. While I’m sure UA sincerely regrets the incident, their inaction as a company to respond to the missed escort has left the airline with a missed opportunity to show they really care about their passengers.
What should United’s response have been? Here’s what I think
1) Apologize in media and online (done)
2) Refund Phoebe’s parents (done)
3) Take responsibility to prevent this from happening in the future (Not done).
United could turn this PR nightmare around by spending time ensuring there is a safety net to ensure children are protected in future, and then tell everyone about what the plan is. Phoebe’s parents deserve an apology but that’s not as important to me. My kid wasn’t lost in an airport. I want to know that should I send my sons on an unaccompanied flight that this won’t happen to me. Right now, I don’t know that and wouldn’t trust the service, and that’s why this will cost the airline real dollars in addition to brand devaluation.