United Airlines draws criticism for misplacing 10-year-old unaccompanied minor

Amidst a celebratory social media backdrop of Olympians returning home, a story of a misplaced child has put United Airlines back in the hotseat.

Social media fiasco afficionados will gleefully recall the 12 million views of “United Breaks Guitars,” in which United passenger and musician Dave Carroll decried the near-destruction of his $3500 Taylor guitar in song. Having spawned a Wikipedia entry, speaking tour and even a book, this was one of the most well-formed case studies on the transformation of customer service by social media.

The latest round for United comes from the Klebahn family in San Francisco. Their 10-year old daughter Phoebe was flying solo from San Francisco, California, to Traverse City, Michigan, where she was attending camp for 2-weeks. Phoebe’s journey would take her via Chicago, where she had a 1h15m transfer time to make her flight to Traverse City.

After checking their daughter in, parents Annie and Perry left her with United reps at SFO and waiting until the flight was in the air. Tracking the flight online, they watched as the plane landed in Chicago without delay, followed by the on-time departure of the Traverse City flight.

Upon arrival in Traverse City, the parents were anticipating a phone call from their daughter’s camp informing them that they had picked up their daughter and that everything was ok.

Unfortunately everything was not ok, as Phoebe had been left behind in Chicago – after the third-party firm that was contracted out to manage unaccompanied minors did not show up to take her to her connecting flight.

A series of phone calls over several days led to the following events:

  • General customer service (outsourced to India) told the parents they were wrong and that Phoebe had indeed arrived in Traverse City (20 minutes hold)
  • The same woman eventually dug deeper and found out that Phoebe had missed her connection despite everything being on-time (10 minutes hold)
  • When asked how she could have missed it given everything was 100% on time, the representative said, “it does not matter” she is still in Chicago and “I am sure she is fine.”
  • When Annie asked to be connected directly to her daughter, the rep said that was not possible. Annie asked to speak to a supervisor. (40 minutes hold)
  • Premier customer service in the USA (Perry is a United frequent flyer) confirmed that Phoebe did not make her flight, and told the parents that the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago simply “forgot to show up” to transfer her to the next flight.
  • No one was able to actually connect the parents to their daughter to confirm that she was ok for over an hour.
  • After arriving in Traverse City late that same day, Phoebe’s bags were not on the flight – meaning no swimsuit, clothes, sheets or bedding for camp.
  • On Day 3 (after one day of no action and many calls), the bags finally arrived in Traverse City.

Obviously this is not the sort of experience any parent wants to have – nor is being alone and scared in an unfamiliar place without really knowing what’s happening something any parent wants their child to go through. Giving a child a cell phone when they travel alone is wise, as is ensuring that they are educated about what to do in the case something doesn’t go according to plan.

United has responded to Tnooz with the following statement:

We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing this matter.  What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers. We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn’s account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge.  We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.

United is at least recognizing the problem by apologizing and making amends by reinstating miles and fees.

A request for a follow-up question regarding what changes they intend to make to their training and unaccompanied minor procedures went answered, as this statement does little to address the more serious concerns here.

Why does a contractor manage unaccompanied minors? Why does United not have technology in place to make misplacing unaccompanied minors impossible? Why is their outsourcing of customer service so poorly managed? Why is it such a de-humanizing process when something goes wrong, especially if you’re not a Premier member?

Bloggers, such as Stanford professor Bob Sutton, and social media users don’t seem to be taking too kindly to this incident, demonstrating an underlying discontent with United Airlines post-merger.





Here is the family’s letter to United, reprinted in full:

July 13th, 2012

United Airlines World Headquarters

77 West Wacker Drive

Chicago, IL 60601

To Whom it May Concern:

I was tempted to start this with the words “it concerns no one” after the unnerving experience we just had with United Airlines losing our 10 year-old daughters as an unaccompanied minor traveling alone on June 30th, 2012.

The experience was so unbelievable that we had to write it down here, and send it to you; despite knowing no one at United reads or responds to anything in regards to their customers.  It’s for our own sanity and perhaps anyone in the press and travel reviews that are willing to listen.

We dropped our 10-year old Phoebe at the San Francisco airport on Saturday, June 30th for her first flight as an unaccompanied minor.  She was traveling through Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan to summer camp for two weeks.  The United personnel who gave her the wristband and instructions told her very loud and clear to “only go with someone with a United badge on and that she would be accompanied at all times”.  We waited with her and sent her off and did not leave SFO until the flight was airborne.  We then tracked the flight on-line and watched it arrived on time in Chicago. We knew that she had 1:15 to transfer to the Traverse City flight.  We then watched on-line as that flight took off and landed on time.  We then waited and waited for the call from camp that she arrived safely.  That call did not come.  Instead we received a frantic call from the camp that Phoebe was not on the flight, nor did the United person in Traverse City know why she was not on the flight.

I proceeded to call United and was put on hold for 20 minutes (imagine if you are a parent waiting 20 minutes not knowing where your 10 year old is).  When someone (from India) finally took the call they first told me that she had indeed arrived in Traverse City and that I was mistaken.  Then (only when I started to panic on the phone) she put me on hold again for 10 more minutes only to come back and tell me Phoebe was still in Chicago and had missed her connection.  When I asked how she could have missed it given everything was 100% on time she said, “it does not matter” she is still in Chicago and “I am sure she is fine”.  When I asked why no one called the camp or us she could not tell me.  When I asked her to please confirm where Phoebe was in Chicago and who she was with she could not tell me.  When I asked to speak with her to be sure she was fine she said that was not possible.  When I asked frantically to talk to her supervisor she put me on hold for 40 minutes.

In the mean time my husband also started to call United using his Premier status phone line and number.  He more quickly got someone on the phone (in the USA) and asked for help.  The first person he spoke with was not able to help but she finally transferred him to someone who also confirmed that Phoebe did not make her flight.  When he asked why she could not say but put him on hold.  When she came back she told him that in fact the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago simply “forgot to show up” to transfer her to the next flight.  He was dumbfounded as neither of us had been told in writing or in person that United outsourced the unaccompanied minor services to a third party vendor.  We were shocked to learn this. Regardless, he asked if she could help us find Phoebe to be sure she was okay and he got put on hold again.  When she came back she said should was going off her shift and could not help.  My husband then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said “yes”—he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do?  She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help.  15 minutes later she found Phoebe in Chicago and found someone to let us talk to her and be sure she was okay.

From the moment of the first phone call from camp informing us that Phoebe did not arrive in Traverse City to when we spoke with her first hand it took almost an hour.  But she had already been in Chicago for over two hours.  She landed and no one came to get her.  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.  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. She was sad and scared and no one helped.

End of story? No—it gets crazier if that is possible.

She finally made a flight to Traverse City four hours later and we informed camp that she would be arriving late that night and that they needed to make a trip back to get her.  They did and then called to let us know that she arrived but that her luggage did not.  I was back on the phone with United (in India) and my husband with United Premier (in the USA) with 40 minutes of waiting for one and the other telling us they could not find her bags but to call back in two hours or check to see if it made the next flight.  Phoebe went off to camp and made the most of having no sheets, pillows or clothes for what capped off one of the most stressful days of her short ten years.

The next morning we were on the phone again and were told by United (in India) that they still could not locate her bag and then by United Premier that they could not help anymore because the baggage department was no longer something they could deal with and that we had to call the special baggage number (in India that I had already called).  Three more sessions of being on hold with India ensued–for 45 minutes each and one of these was a non-stop request to speak to the person in charge (who ended up being one Tom Tang in Delhi who claims to be the most senior person but could “in no way help me”)—AND three more flights to Traverse City that day left from Chicago and her bag was not on any of them.

We then went back to trying United Premier again and my husband tried his “are you a Mom” tactic with the next woman on the phone who agreed to help the sad 10 year old girl at camp in 100 degree heat with no bathing suit, sheets or change of clothes (and no store to shop in for 45 miles).  She put him on hold and 30-minutes later got back on having personally had someone in Chicago baggage locate the camp bag and describe it to us on the phone.  We confirmed it was Phoebe’s and they confirmed it would be on the next flight to Traverse City.  We let camp know and sent them to the airport again to get it (United bags that arrive to TC don’t get delivered to the camp until the next day they know from experience so they went personally).  We thought that was it.  AGAIN–The bag did not arrive—camp confirmed this.  We started the same process again and another 90 minutes later we were assured by a United person that it would be on the next flight—“confirmed”.  We sent camp again to the airport—the bag again did not arrive.  That was the last flight of the day.  Phoebe was now going to bed again with no word and no clothes or bedding.

The next morning we started the same process again (day three now mind you) and had someone assure us it would make the early flight but we asked for the Traverse City United baggage desk number to confirm its arrival before we sent camp to retrieve it this time to be sure (they would not agree to give the number until we begged them by telling the whole saga).  It finally arrived at noon on the second flight and was to Phoebe by 2pm after we called camp and they went to pick it up.

End of story right?  Not really.

We logged a formal complaint via United Premier for the unaccompanied minor situation and were blown away to learn that when you file a complaint with United you cannot file it yourself.  You have to tell someone on the phone what you are filing for, let him or her write your story down and then THEY file it.  We asked to have them read it back to us to verify the facts, we also asked to read it ourselves and both requests were denied.  We asked for them to focus on the fact that they “forgot” a 10-year old in the airport and never called camp or us to let us know.  We also asked that they focus on the fact that we were not informed in any way that United uses a third party service for this. They said they would “do their best” to file the complaint per our situation.  We asked if we would be credited the $99 unaccompanied minor fee (given she was clearly not accompanied).  They said they weren’t sure.

We asked if the bags being lost for three days and camp having to make 5 trips to the airport vs. one was something we would be compensated for (given we pay camp $25 every time they go to the airport).  They said that we would have to follow up with that separately with United baggage as a separate complaint. They also said that process was the same—United field what they hear from you but you do not get to file the complaint yourselves.

The good news:

  • Phoebe arrived at camp safely after an unbelievably traumatic experience
  • Phoebe’s bags arrived safely (albeit three days later)
  • United employee Deborah #M2747 is a Mom and was amazing despite her United training
  • United employee Lisa #A8183 is a Mom and was amazing despite her United training

The bad news is such a long list and so crazy I don’t know where to start:

  • United outsourced a service to accompany small children without informing parents in advance of taking their children into their care—HUGE liability
  • United neglected to care for and keep safe the unaccompanied minor that they took into their care by forgetting her and having all their staff ignore her requests for help—HUGE liability
  • United neglected to inform the minor’s parents and/or the minor’s designated pick up contact that she was delayed (or should I say forgotten?)—HUGE liability
  • United in India was completely unable to help us on any account (except to tell us incorrectly that Phoebe had indeed arrived safely when she had not)
  • United baggage is completely inept and has no business being in business
  • United has made the travel process and experience unbearable by de-humanizing any and all experiences UNLESS you are a Premier member AND you beg someone to “be a parent” AND they break the rules ONLY then can they maybe help you
  • United’s complaint process is unacceptable—you lost our child and we still have not heard form you that you are even sorry and we can have our $99 fee back
  • I need to stop now or I will start typing things that are even more unflattering than the above list

We have flown United for 40 years, my husband is a Premier member and flies all over the world with United, we have a United credit card, and we were very loyal United followers.  Phoebe would have grown up to be a loyal United follower as well I am sure, but now she “never wants to fly United again.”

We have never in all our collective years had such an unbelievably terrible customer service experience—not ever.  We estimate that we spent around 18 hours collectively on the phones, on hold, trying to track down Phoebe, her bags and our peace of mind. Its hard to imagine how you run a business this way, how you get away with things so close to child endangerment, and how you sleep at night training your service employees how to not be of service.

End of story?  You tell us.  As far as we are concerned it can’t get any worse.


Annie Klebahn

Perry Klebahn

Trip/Complaint Reference Facts:

Flight Date: June 30th Flight # UA355 and UA6107 (replaced with UA6052)

Travel Confirmation Number #R4K504 or #L814X6

Complaint Number filed #PLPLKD

NB: Traveling child image from Shutterstock

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Nick Vivion

About the Writer :: Nick Vivion

Nick is the Editorial Director for tnooz, where he oversees the editorial and commercial content as well as emerging businesses like tnoozLIVE. Prior to this role, Nick has multi-hyphenated his way through a variety of passions: restaurateur, photographer, filmmaker, corporate communicator, Lyft driver, Airbnb host, journalist, and event organizer.



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  1. Texan78730

    I was in the travel industry from 1964 until 1999 and NEVER once heard a client of mine compliment United.

    Something always went wrong, and United rarely answered complaints. If they did so, the standard form letter was hollow and insincere. They never resolved a problem. And man were there problems.

    I honestly believe that United trains their employees to be rude and uncaring. Surely there is no other way to account for their systemic attitudes.

    One of the great mysteries of the universe is how they have managed to stay in business all these years.

    • Nick Vivion

      Nick Vivion

      It’s a mystery and has many reconsidering their loyalties. Here’s hoping that the United brass is listening – or at least has hired someone to do sentiment analysis across platforms – and that they are truly trying to implement change. Because if they don’t, they’re going to start to see the pain.

  2. Sylvia Mracky

    I just returned from a Delta flight from DTW to LAX. While wtg in a queue for the ladies I overheard three women speaking of their Delta flight and comparing it to a former United flight. They raved about Delta and compared to United which wasn’t as clean, the service not as good and the flight took longer than Deltas (obviously different equipment). United…”watch your tail.)”

  3. Merrianne

    Among a host of other far more important matters, I think the outsourcing is a tragedy. What if EVERYONE in the US refused to speak with representatives who were not in our country? I know we would not get a lot of business done, and we would get no service instead of poor service, but maybe, just maybe, things would change.


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