UMNRs – Unaccompanied Minors

By | June 18, 2009
Expressjet N297SK ERJ-145LR
Image by caribb via Flickr

(Updated 06/19 with corrections courtesy of Mr. Kamens)

The issue of unaccompanied minors has come into the news lately, courtesy of Jonathan Kamens. Kamens put his daughter Miriam on a flight to Cleveland out of Boston on Sunday to visit her grandparents.

He paid the unaccompanied minor fee. The fact that most airlines who permit unaccompanied minors(henceforth abbreviated UMNRS) do so at a charge implies services will be provided for this charge, namely that the child will be assisted in some fashion or form.

A gate agent took the paperwork and escorted Miriam through the gate to the plane. Airlines tend to board multiple regional flights through the same gate, and instead of putting her on the Cleveland flight, she was put on a flight to Newark. Despite the fact that the airline had provided a service for which they charge a fee, the flight attendant on the Newark flight apparently didn’t question the minor onboard alone, nor did anyone question the missing minor on the Cleveland flight.

At Newark, no one noticed that the paperwork for the minor removed from the plane did not have her going to Newark…a point at which they certainly should have noticed such a thing. Continental at Newark called the grandparents to pick up the child at Newark as if nothing was wrong, and did not contact the parents, even though all numbers were on the paperwork.

Mr. Kamens didn’t discover anything was wrong until his father-in-law called from the gate in Cleveland to ask why his granddaughter wasn’t on the plane. It took an additional forty-five minutes until Continental in Cleveland confirmed she was in Newark. Kamens attributes this to his suggestion, as he recalled the other flight at the gate. He was outraged when Continental only offered to refund the unaccompanied minor fee, commenting, “You can bet they’ll be refunding a lot more than that fee by the time I’m done with them.

Now, a good airline would have shut things down then and there, by offering satisfaction to their customer. At the least a full refund of the roundtrip price and a promise to review and alter their UMNR procedures to avoid such things. To Kamens, it isn’t about money, and we agree. The screwup here happened at multiple levels. It happened when the gate agent deposited the passenger without verifying it was the correct flight, when the flight attendant didn’t notice her, when the other flight attendant failed to notice her absence, and in both Newark and Cleveland when agents failed to notice her incorrect absence/presence. Several agents signed her paperwork without even noticing she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.

Kamens reported it to everyone, from the FAA, to the Consumerist, to papers and TV stations in Cleveland, Boston, and New York. Continental confirmed it had made a mistake, and violated regulations but not ensuring the correct number of passengers was onboard before departing.

We must be critical of Mr. Kamens to a degree. To quote him, “(a) “7-10 days” was probably not a good time-frame for reaching some sort of resolution to this issue, and “before 5pm tonight” was probably a better idea, and (b) it might  be a good idea for her to escalate this incident from the “make pissed off customers happy” department for which she worked to the “get out in front of PR disasters and get them cleaned up ASAP” department which I was sure existed somewhere within the company.” His incident happened on a Sunday night. No corporate department would probably be available till Monday morning…and the airport should have ensured it was in someone’s hands then. Mr. Kamens commented below, and we emphasize his statement that if Continental had given him the impression that they were taking things seriously, he would not have reacted in this manner. And they must certainly should have.

The agent, by his statement, from their Customer Relations department, said it would take 7-10 days to investigate what happened. Which is a reasonable amount of time to interview everyone involved and render an official decision in a large corporation. However, the fact that the incident did happen were not in dispute. If we were Continental, we would have immediately offered to refund the entire ticket value for the child , and discuss any additional compensation after that. We’re not sure that would have soothed Mr. Kamens’ though.

He maintains it isn’t about the money. He gave them what he thought was reasonable…a full refund, which we agree with, and an upgrade, which is certainly a nice gesture. “People need to understand that a lawsuit is only one of many ways to compel a company to do the right thing when they make a mistake.  Another one, for example, is shining light on the company’s actions on the Internet and in the news media until they realize that it is in their best interest to at least pretend that they care about what happened.” We can agree with that.

Kamens is certainly the most vocal of the people this is happening to, and took measures to ensure the public knew about this, but 24-hours before, Continental did the exact same thing. In Houston, 8-year old Taylor Williams was put on a plane to Fayetteville, AK instead of Charlotte, NC. Continental spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said both incidents occurred when flights with different destinations were loaded simultaneously from the same doorway and that “miscommunication among staff members resulted in the child being boarded on the wrong aircraft.”

While the airline claims they compensated both families identically, the Williams family claims it was offered a refund of the unaccompanied minor fee on the ticket and a $400 voucher. It does prove, as Mr. Kamens shows, that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and possibly that Continental only thinks this sort of thing is worth the fee paid to supervise the child…something they admittedly did not do.

But, as we agree with many of his points, although not with how quickly he escalated the situation(although it appears to have worked), we will link to his wife’s suggestions for improvements. Our condensed version is below, with our own comments.

  1. Do not Board Two Planes at the Same Gate at the Same Time. Let one go after the other. This will avoid confusion for not only children, but adults.
  2. Allow the Parents to Take the Child to the Plane.  Southwest already permits this, so it must not be a security issue. At that point, the guardian can transfer the minor directly to the flight attendant, ensuring he or she is aware of the situation. Of course, if we recall our episodes of Airline on A&E, even Southwest with this policy nearly messed up once.
  3. Preboard UMNRs.  Most airlines allow parents with small children to preboard. By escorting the children down before the general boarding, it ensures they will not be overlooked.
  4. Watch the Child. Someone should be required to keep an eye on the minor at all times. Many airlines tag them with stickers, or placards around their necks to ensure they are noticed. It is not an all-engrossing duty, but someone should be required to check on them periodically, as part of the service.

MSNBC reports that parents are reconsidering sending their kids unaccompanied, in light of incidents like this. Parents are asking themselves, if such a thing happens and the airline loses their child, which is a nightmare situation, is their child capable of handling it? Are they mature enough? Can they ask the right questions is something goes wrong?

For more information on the fees charged by various domestic carriers, we direct you to this table. The policies of various airlines differ in regard to the handling of unaccompanied minors. As the transporting of minors across state lines is something the federal government can regulate, it might not be a bad idea for them to consider addressing the issue. We are not the biggest fans of government regulation, unlike an adult traveling on a plane, airlines agree to become guardians of the child for the duration of the travel experience. Therefore, additional liability should be required, although this may cause airlines to refuse service to minors entirely, as some airlines already do.

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