Airline Loses 10-year-old Child. Do You Let Your Kids Fly by Themselves?

Do you allow your children to fly by themselves?It's a perennial problem for parents of summer campers and for divorced parents who share custody of their kids but live far away from one another: Do you let your child fly by themselves?

Related: 5 ways to prepare your child to fly alone

Annie and Perry Klebahn dropped their 10-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off at the San Francisco airport on June 30th for her first-ever solo trip to sleep-away camp in Michigan. They paid the $99 unaccompanied minor fee to United Airlines and listened as United personnel reassured Phoebe that she would have someone with her at all times and reminded her to only go with someone wearing a United badge. They waited at the airport until Phoebe's flight took off, tracked it online to Chicago, watched online as her connecting flight took off and landed in Traverse City, Michigan, where someone from the camp was scheduled to meet her plane.

But Phoebe wasn't on it. The 10-year-old spent hours alone in Chicago while United officials ignored her requests for help.

"No one showed up in Chicago to help her transfer, so although her plane made it, she missed the connection," Sanford University professor Bob Sutton, who is friends with the girls' parents, wrote on his blog. "Most crucially, United employees consistently refused to take action to help assist or comfort Phoebe or to help her parents locate her despite their cries for help to numerous United employees."

Phoebe ended up all right -- she made it to camp four hours later, though her luggage took three more days to arrive. But even so, she spent hours alone in an unfamiliar airport, unable to reach her parents. "She was sad and scared and no one helped," her parents wrote in their complaint to United.

"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," they wrote in their letter, which Sutton also posted on his blog. "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."

According to the Klebahns, it took them more than 18 hours of phone calls to account for their daughter's whereabouts and to track her belongings. At first, a United representative in India told Annie Klebahn that she was mistaken and Phoebe was actually at camp. Then she admitted that the child had missed the flight, but told the distraught mother "'It does not matter' she is still in Chicago and 'I am sure she is fine'," the Klebans wrote. When Annie asked to speak to a supervisor, she was put on hold for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, Perry Klebahn, who is a United "Premire" member, was also calling the airline and got slightly better results: He was able to talk to a United representative in the US quickly, and was told the unaccompanied minor service hired to take Phoebe to her connecting flight "forgot to show up." (United's website does not mention that they outsource this service.) But when he asked the United representative if she could make sure Phoebe was OK, she told him that "she was going off her shift and could not help." It wasn't until Perry asked her if she was a mother herself, and she said yes, that she was willing to even locate the 10-year-old inside the airport.

The rules for allowing kids to fly unaccompanied varies from carrier to carrier. JetBlue, for example, only allows children age 5 to 13 to fly by themselves on nonstop flights; children age 14 and older are considered adults who do not require additional help. On United, children age 12 and older can fly by themselves without supervision. On Delta, children age 5 to 7 can fly unaccompanied on nonstop flights only, but children age 8 to 14 can fly on connecting flights without an adult as well (the program is optional for children age 15 to 17.) US Airways says that children age 5 to 14 traveling alone can travel on non-stop flights only. And American Airlines considers passengers age 12 to 17 to be "young adults" for whom extra help is available for an extra fee, but not required; children younger than 12 are considered unaccompanied minors unless they are traveling with another person who is at least 16 years old.

According to Sutton, United only responded to the family after their story was picked up by a TV station in San Francisco. On Aug. 12 -- nearly a month and a half after the incident -- a United representative called the Klebahns at home to address the problem. Yesterday, as outrage continued to build and people started trading United horror stories on social media, United issued a public statement:

"We appreciate and understand everyone's concerns over this situation, please know we have reached out directly to the Klebahn family to apologize and are conducting an on-going investigation," United said on their Facebook page. "The service they describe is not the service we aim to deliver. We are doing a thorough investigation into what happened and into our procedures to see how we may continually improve."

United told the Huffington Post that they've refunded the Klebahns' unaccompanied minor fee and redeposited the frequent flier miles used to pay for the ticket, but many customers are calling the statement "a non-apology" and vowing never to fly United again.

"I'm just flabbergasted by the degree to which none of your employees could be bothered to care," commented Nicklas Johnson on United's Facebook page.

Others are criticizing the Klebahns for not taking their child to camp themselves.

"I would never, ever send my child on a plane without a parent, grandparent or close relative," wrote FSMbaby at the Huffington Post. "What makes people think this is ok? You're trusting your kids to complete strangers."

Are your kids old enough to fly by themselves? Do you let them?

Copyright © 2012 Yahoo Inc.

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