United Airlines & Unaccompanied Children Passengers

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.

13 replies
  1. Pattio says:

    UA obviously did not learn a thing from the UBG Saga. A LOST CHILD FOR GOD SAKE!! What is the matter with those people?? I thought they had revamped their entire customer service profile…I guess they forgot the one important factor…the actual CUSTOMER.

    I will never fly with this airline. Never have and never will. With two black marks on their wing, I shudder to think what the third will be. Unbelievable. Thanks Dave for expressing your thoughts.

  2. Barb Tessier says:

    You inspire many of us to speak up Dave. Canadians have been complacent for far too long. You have proven that we can, and will be heard, and you have done so in a very creative, entertaining, and proactive manner.

    WAKE UP CANADA! If you’re going to complain, do so constructively, and to the appropriate people/company in a manner that gets you noticed! YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, friends, whatever! Let’s just start standing up for the service we pay for, and deserve!

  3. Kate Werkhoven says:

    The company that UA outsourced to, is Airserv (airservcorp.com)

    What I found frightening though, was the apathy of all the UA personnel involved in this. No one tried to find out what had gone wrong, they would not allow the girl to call home, and the parents had to plead with someone to help them: the woman initially refused because she was going off shift.

    I do not think UA will ever learn.

  4. Mike P says:

    What ever happened to PARENTS bringing their children to summer camp?

    That being said, my first ever flight was as an UAM. However, my aunt flew with me on the twin otter for the first leg, and then handed me off to the STEWARD with Canadian Pacific who ‘handled’ me all the way from Thunder Bay until my Dad met us in Calgary. This handling included being the LAST passenger off the plane.

  5. Wendy Roy says:

    Dave, I feel certain to could create another awesome song and video about this terrible US negligence.

  6. Ann S says:

    It seems to me that most people would gladly go out of their way to help a 10 year old child in a potentially dangerous situation. There must be something very wrong with the work/life conditions of the UA employees. How else could more than one of them ignore the plight of this vulnerable customer? A customer who, by the way, demonstrated wonderful common sense and maturity.

  7. Robin N says:

    We have been discussing this a lot too. As a travel agent I book UAMs a lot. This is absolutely a worst case scenario and not only did UA not fulfill their end of the deal, they refused to get involved until the media was brought in. In my opinion though, in NO WAY should this ever have been outsourced! Their policy states: “What if my child’s travel is affected by delays, cancellations or other problems?
    It can be very stressful when flights do not operate as planned, especially for unaccompanied children. In the case of weather or other delays and cancellations, United will contact you or the person designated to meet your child at his or her final destination. You can also track the status of the flight on united.com. Advise your child to remain with a United representative at all times. Consider giving your child a calling card or teaching him or her how to make collect calls so he or she can reach you” but states what a UA representative *should* be doing. Its very obvious that did not happen. Clearly the representative should have stayed with the child, clearly they should have stepped up and they did fulfill their end of the contract.

    Someone yesterday metioned that it was the fault of the parent that they allowed their child to go UAM in the first place, which is utterly absurd, again in my opinion, there are many cases where this is the only option for parents. US really dropped the ball on this one.

  8. Mary Ellen says:

    No matter how you look at it UA was negligent by not keeping the child safe until she was turned over to the outsourced agent. What was the contingency plan in place at UA. Was the child really meant to walk off the plane and find this agent on her own…come on! if UA had the proper policy in place, they could have made a simple call to the outsourced agency to tell them that the person didn’t show up…who knows….. the person could have been in a car accident on the way to the airport… and lets say hypothetically unconscious so unable to call to say they couldn’t make it, UA should have had a contingency plan in place…this is called running a business….So anyway you look at it UA are still holding the buck.

  9. Paul Weager says:

    your summation is spot on, you brow beat them into an apology, you brow beat them for a refund and then business as usual, I don’t mean to give the impression that running an airline is easy but i do see some carriers at least trying to pull up their sox and do it with a smile

  10. Heidi Harris says:

    I think what you suggested UA’s response should have been is spot on.

    The problem still is that they responded when their feet were put to the fire, not because they were wrong, knew it and it was the right thing to do.

    Her parents had to plead with a UA employee, who happened to also be a parent. That is incomprehensible to me.

    Do people really follow the letter of the rules so closely, that they forget the spirit of them? That’s sad!

  11. kirk Weisler says:

    You continue to inspire, bless and lead with your sharing of wisdom, your stories in song…and most importantly…your feet in motion. Thanks Dave

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