United Airlines Strands Unaccompanied Girl, 10, at O'Hare

Chicago-based airline outsources unaccompanied minor service

Thursday, Aug 16, 2012  |  Updated 5:11 PM CDT
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A Bay Area family goes through a parent's worst nightmare after dropping their 10-year-old child off at SFO for a flight to summer camp.

A Bay Area family goes through a parent's worst nightmare after dropping their 10-year-old child off at SFO for a flight to summer camp.

A San Francisco mother is hoping United Airlines changes its policies regarding unaccompanied minors after a nerve-wracking ordeal with her 10-year-old daughter's trip earlier this summer.

Phoebe Klebahn in June was traveling alone from San Francisco International Airport to a summer camp in Traverse City, Mich., with a connection at Chicago's O'Hare International. The family paid an extra $99 for a service where an airline representative escorts a child during the trip.

Once in Chicago, the girl had an hour to find that escort and make her connecting flight. But that's where the system broke down.

"They called for accompany, um, -- and no one came. They called several more times and told me to wait at front seat. When no one came after a while they told me to go out and wait by the lady who scans your tickets," Phoebe recalled to San Francisco NBC station KNTV this week.

The 10-year-old ended up missing her connecting flight and was escorted by someone from United to a room for unaccompanied minors. Without a cell phone of her own, she said she asked the airline to help her place a call to her parents.

"They said we are busy. 'Not now. Wait a minute,' And I kept waiting and asking, but never had time to call," Phoebe said.

It wasn't until mother Annie Klebahn got a frantic call from the camp counselor that she learned something was wrong.

Annie Klebahn said she immediately called the Chicago-based airline only to be put on hold for nearly an hour. She said it was only with the help of her husband's premier status did she find an employee in Chicago who took the time to help her find her daughter.

"We got to talk to her, she was calm. That was great,” Annie Klebahn said. 

Phoebe made it on the next flight and made it to camp. Her luggage though, took another three days.

It was after the panic that Annie Klebahn started asking more questions of United and getting more alarmed by the answers.

"The flight was on-time, so what happened? The service that United uses is outsourced. They are the ones who didn’t show up," Annie said.

She said she and her husband had no idea that United outsourced the unaccompanied minor program to a company called "AirServ." In fact, even on the website, United says, "An airline representative will meet your child upon landing and escort your child."

Klebahn wrote a letter to United about what happened, filed a complaint with the airline and hoped for a reply, a change in policy and perhaps even an apology.

Six weeks went by without a response. Then NBC Bay Area began asking questions.

"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," airline spokesman Charles Hobart said in an email to NBC Bay Area. "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."

Klebahn wasn't satisfied.

"They need to have a dedicated phone line for parents so that they can find your child for you. They have to overhaul the program. [There are] too many risks not enough disclosure," she said.

But so far, United has not made any public changes.

"They lost her; lost not her n the traditional sense, but we had no idea where she was," the frustrated mother said.

NBC Bay Area has the letter Klebahn sent to United's CEO, Jeff Smisek.

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