Boy Left Alone for Hours in Airport – What Airline and Mom Should Have Done

A 9 year old boy had been visiting his dad in San Francisco and was heading home to Mom in Ottawa with a stopover at O’Hare, and therein lies the tale – or, what one blogger called a “horrible, horrible” experience.

Child Stuck in O’Hare Airport for 8 Hours

You see, young Julien Reed – whose family had duly paid United’s $99 each-way “unaccompanied minor” fee – did not make his connecting flight home. He sat in the room reserved for kiddies for eight hours, because nobody from the airline came to get him. Julien was told his flight was delayed, but it appears he was simply forgotten.

Vegetarian Kid Fed McDonald’s

Now to be fair, United did give the child some food, but seeing as how the child is a vegetarian, those McDonald’s burgers didn’t work out so well (I do not buy into one blogger’s description that the child was “force-fed” the airport burgers, but I am sure it was an uncomfortable experience).

Cold Response from Airline

United’s initial response? The airline was kind of cold: “He missed his flight, we put him on the next available flight,” said a spokesperson. I’d prefer hearing something along the lines of, “We screwed up, and we’re doing everything to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” I think we like to hear people admit mistakes – especially when they try to atone.

Airline Atones

To be fair, United ultimately did atone; as spokesperson Megan McCarthy told me, “We did not get the customer to the gate in time for his flight and we apologize for the inconvenience this caused his family. We accommodated him on the next available flight, and are reaching out to the family to provide a refund for the fee and a goodwill gesture.”

So what should have happened? First of all, not all children should fly all by themselves, and that’s a determination for the parent. However, Julien was a veteran, having flown this route a half-dozen times a year.

Suggestions for Parent of Children Traveling Alone

First of all, you’re going to have to train your children about flying (train them, not frighten them) and even have them rehearse their responses to various scenarios.

1. Teach them to speak up

This is going to be tough for a shy child, but they have to be able to question adults. Teach them to say, “Is this the plane to (my town)?” or “Will someone get me when my flight is ready to take off?” If they cannot do this, they should not be flying alone.

2. Teach them to use the phone

Every child traveling alone should have a cell phone and know how to use it – and that this is a cell phone that the child can call out of, and you can call to. Train them to phone you if there is any deviation from the schedule, whether it’s a delayed flight or they aren’t sure if they’re on the right plane.

3. No checked-bags

Don’t burden a child with the possibility of a lost bag; a small backpack should do for almost any kid (if not, ship their stuff). Be sure to include a note inside that includes the child’s name and cell number, your name and cell number, and the child’s itinerary. Have a copy for the child to keep in his pocket, as well. If your child isn’t old enough to read, have the child stay home.

4. Pack food your child can eat

Again, I’m not sure about the McDonald’s story, but in any event, pack a meal for your child that he or she can eat (a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a bunch of cookies). And this is not the time to be stingy with candy either.

5. Avoid connecting flights

Most airlines won’t let children of a certain age on anything but nonstops. If you can’t get your child on a direct flight, fly with him. Too expensive? The kid can stay at home. Let the person the child was going to visit, fly to the child.

Suggestions for the Airline

There’s only one suggestion, and one only. And it goes for every airline.

1. Apologize like crazy

After the apology, try to make sure this never happens again. Never. Then do what you can to make it better (yes, vouchers, whatever).

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Published: July 28, 2010