Airline Leaves Unaccompanied Minor Unaccompanied
There are a lot of ways that flying as an unaccompanied minor can go wrong. I'm not saying don't do it - heck, my daughter and I have both flown as unaccompanied minors successfully, but it is not without risk. Airlines face unexpected delays, cancellations, diversions, and more that can cause havoc on an experienced adult's travel day, let alone a young child's who is traveling alone. Not only that, but airlines are not parents, and paying a (hefty?!) fee to have your child fly as an unaccompanied minor is not anywhere near the same thing as having a caregiver onboard the flight.
Sadly, there is another story of an unaccompanied minor who hit some bumps on their solo journey. This time it is United who reportedly left a child by themselves in the Houston airport.
It seems that the 12 year old recently flew from her home in another state to her Grandma's house in Houston. She seems to have told by a United employee to wait and then something happened to cause her to be left alone. Perhaps the hand off from flight attendant to gate agent had a problem, or someone got distracted, or there was some other issue that led to this serious lapse.
She must have been forgotten alone for longer than a minute or two, and the Grandma never saw her deplane with the other passengers. Eventually the grandmother went looking for her and found her sitting by herself in what was described as a hallway (the jet bridge?).
United forgot or lost track of the unaccompanied minor for some period of time, but thankfully she was found safe and sound by her grandmother in the end. However, we all know that the ending could have been much more sinister as it would have been very easy for another passenger or person in the airport to have walked off with the unattended child. Thankfully a 12 year old is much older than the minimum age of 5 that is required to be an unaccompanied minor, but kids of all ages can be tricked or scared into complying with an adult's instructions, especially when they are somewhere like a huge and unfamiliar airport. For those curious, United requires children 15 and under without a guardian to be unaccompanied minors and once you reach 16 you may not be an unaccompanied minor.
Don't Let the Airline Lose Your Kid
You cannot control everything, especially when your travel is flying alone, but there are some things you can do to minimize the risk of having your child fly by themselves as much as possible. I outlined some of these here, but will summarize them again.
- Instruct your child that if anyone does anything inappropriate or makes them uncomfortable tell them to stop, alert the flight attendant immediately, and yell if needed. This includes if that someone is an airline employee.
- Book your child's seat as close to a flight attendant as possible and in the aisle row for maximum visibility. We selected seat 1A on a regional jet for our daughter so she was facing the flight attendant and had no one right next to her.
- Walk through emergency procedures with your kid and tell them to listen to instructions from the flight attendant and/or captain, especially in the event that something unusual happens, you have to make an emergency exit, etc. Talk through what happens if you need to go down the emergency exit slide, use the oxygen mask, need to leave belongings on the plane in event of an emergency landing, etc. They may not remember all of that, but at least the first time they hear it won't be in the middle of an emergency.
- Tell them that when you get off of the plane do not to leave the airline employees at the gate area no matter what until met by their family member.
- Ensure they know how to call or FaceTime you if needed, and that they have your phone number memorized. If they don't know how to reach you, they probably aren't yet the right age to fly unaccompanied.
Of course you also need to have a family member stay at the departure gate until the plane is in the air, track the heck out of that plane throughout its journey, and be sure someone is at the arrival gate well in advance of landing to meet the kiddo as they deplane. Last minute gate changes can make this a challenge, but just keep tracking and talking to the gate agents so you can race to wherever you need to be ASAP if the arrival gate changes. Also be sure your kid knows not to leave the gate with anyone but you no matter what. I would not book an unaccompanied minor on an itinerary involving a connection even if it were allowed, and I personally would have a contingency plan to get to wherever they are by nightfall in the event of a diversion.
Airlines charge extra for unaccompanied minors, but in practice that doesn't mean that anyone is watching your kid for most of the the journey. We had a great experience with excellent United crew members on our daughter's journey, but even great staff members get busy and distracted during peak travel days. That isn't making excuses for an airline losing track of a kid, but just be sure that you and your kiddo know how to stay safe even if the airline has a blip before you to decide to book them as an unaccompanied minor.
As for this family, I sure hope that at the very least United offers to fly a parent or grandparent with this child to help get them home at no additional charge, and refunds what they have paid thus far. In all likelihood my daughters will fly as unaccompanied minors again, but stories like are a very good reminders that an airline is not a parent and ultimately the family needs a solid plan in place in case something goes a bit astray.