On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Rebecca Roberts
United Airlines is taking criticism over its policies for minors who fly unaccompanied by adults. A Bethesda, Md., man took his concerns public this weekend, after he paid a fee to have his daughter escorted in airports on her flight and she was still left alone. We examine the business practices airlines are deploying on this front, and why some airlines have outsourced how they handle minors to separate companies.
- Brett Snyder Author, The Cranky Flier blog; President and Chief of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. Contributing writer, CNN and Conde Nast Traveler.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. It's summer travel season. For some families, that means sending kids off on their own. Whether they're heading to summer camp or a visit with relatives, it can be hard to pull off the round-trip flight to drop off your child. And since most airlines offer unaccompanied minor tickets, parents put their unease their aside and hope that the airlines get their kids to their final destination unharmed. But there's recent story about a 10-year-old girl left wandering Chicago's O'Hare Airport after a missed connection.
MS. REBECCA ROBERTSAnd that story has exposed some of the flaws in the unaccompanied minor plan. So joining us to talk about how airlines' unaccompanied minor policy should work and some of the issues with them, we have Brett Snyder. He's the president and chief airline dork of Cranky Flier LLC. He writes The Cranky Flier blog, and he's a contributing writer for CNN and Conde Nast Traveler. Brett Snyder, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
MR. BRETT SNYDERThanks for having me on, Rebecca.
ROBERTSDoes it really say chief airline dork on your business card? Because that's a great title.
SNYDERIt absolutely does. I figure I have to embrace it if I -- you know, if I'm gonna say it.
ROBERTSRight, own it. So there was this week -- this story last week of a 10-year-old girl. She was on her way to camp in Michigan from California. She had to take a connecting flight. There were no direct flights. And she ended up stranded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, which, as everyone knows, is this busy, overwhelming airport even if you're a veteran flier. What happened?
SNYDERWell, I -- you know, I've heard sort of a couple of different versions of what happened here. But, effectively, her family put her on a plane, the first flight to Chicago. The flight attendant was in charge of that situation when she was on the airplane. And then when she got to Chicago, it sounds like there was some sort of lapse in the chain. So what should have happened is there should have been someone who showed up who would have escorted her to the next flight because it was just a regular connection.
SNYDERThere wasn't a long layover, anything like that. And that person didn't show up. So it sounds like what happened was she sat at the gate for a long time and missed her connection. And then, you know, meanwhile, her parents are frantically trying to figure out where she is and what's going on. And eventually she made it, but it was, you know, the sort of, you know, missing link in the chain, I guess, that caused the problem.
ROBERTSAnd what that exposed -- and her parents wrote an open letter to United Airlines, and that's made its way around the blogs, and so that's how the story got out. But it seems that the -- escorting a minor from one flight to another is outsourced in most airports, is that right, or by most airlines?
SNYDERYeah. My understanding is it can be, and that's something that -- you know, a lot of job functions are outsourced. They don't know that just the simple fact of outsourcing is a problem in itself. But what concerns me is just the quality of the employees, of who's being outsourced to and who's, you know, in charge of taking this person back and forth. And I don't know exactly, you know, what type of people are doing this 'cause I haven't actually done it myself.
ROBERTSRight. But then if you're trying to reach United to figure out what's gone wrong, and the United agents don't have any ability to fix it because it's somebody else's responsibility, then even if the outsourcing firm is great, it's just another, you know, level of personnel you need to figure out.
SNYDERSure. I mean, the way that this should work is if someone calls in to reservations or to any United touch point and says, hey, my child is missing, that should set off all kinds of bells and alarms and whistles, something that, you know, says, OK, we need a procedure where, if this happens, there's a direct line that we go through to figure out exactly what's happening. And in this case, it's not a problem that it was outsourced because the group that was in charge of this, they never picked the girl up off the first flight.
SNYDERSo, you know, she should have been under United's control, and I saw one article saying that she was never unsupervised. I'm not sure why United wants to kind of even push that as an issue. The point is there was a big problem here. But -- so someone at United should have been able to find this out relatively quickly and know where this person is.
ROBERTSAnd today here on WAMU, Armando Trull reported on a story about a local 12-year-old girl who was also not met in Chicago O'Hare. So you think all this attention from the 10-year-old girl last week would make them up their game. Happily for the second story, the 12-year-old was able to just sort of read the monitor about where her connecting flight was and take care of it herself. But, once again, the service that her parents had paid for didn't come through.
SNYDERI had seen something about that, other incident where they said that they had declined the unaccompanied minor service on that, and then they refunded the money. I'm not entirely sure what happened with that one 'cause I've only seen a couple of brief mentions about it, unlike this first example in Michigan. But there are so many children that travel alone, going through a very complex system, that as much as you would hope that something like this would never happen, it seems to me that it's probably likely to happen at some point.
ROBERTSWell, let's turn this out to our listeners to find out their experiences with having unaccompanied minors fly, either your own or your child's. You can call 800-433-8850 or send us email, email@example.com. And we -- we'll take your calls, positive or negative, in this sort of experience because what was interesting to me was when this story hit the blogs last week, there was a pretty wide range of reaction, you know, from how outrageous that the airline dropped the ball to how outrageous that these parents put a 10-year-old on a connecting flight. What have you been hearing, Brett Snyder?
SNYDERAbsolutely. And I actually agree with that. I can't imagine putting my child on a connecting flight unaccompanied unless I know that my child can handle him or herself. So, I mean, I have a very young child right now who is several years away from being able to go on any flight unaccompanied. But, you know, for me, I would think about, OK, is there a way I can fly nonstop? Because then, you know, you're basically putting your child on the plane, and then someone is there right when they get off.
SNYDERAnd that might mean for some people, you know, driving further away to a bigger airport than what's nearby to where you are. But it's probably worth it, in my personal opinion. Now for some people, you don't have that option. Kids need to travel. Maybe they have parents in different states or grandparents or whatever it might be. And it can be very expensive to escort that child by flying -- you know, buying two round-trip tickets to fly with them each way.
SNYDERBut, you know, it's still something that if you're gonna make someone connect in a big hub all by themselves, it's a place where things can go wrong. You would hope it never would, but it's possible.
ROBERTSAnd I understand that, under a certain age, kids aren't even allowed to take connecting flights unaccompanied.
SNYDERYeah, that's right. So on most airlines, you have to be 5 years old to go unaccompanied, which still seems incredibly young. But when you're 5, you can only go on a nonstop flight. So as young as, you know, about 8 years old, kids can start going unaccompanied on connection. And on an airline like United, once you turn 12, you don't even need to be accompanied -- or you don't even need to sign up for the service. You can have a 12-year-old making a connection all by himself without any trouble.
ROBERTSI have put my kids in unaccompanied flights, and I actually found the rules pretty -- burdensome is the wrong word, but pretty strenuous. Like when you walk your child to the gate, you're not allowed to leave the gate until that airplane is in the air. And you have to, you know, wait in the special line, get a gate pass. It seemed to me that they actually were -- tipped the scales in the other way in terms of being over secure to make sure that no child, you know, had no responsible adult with them at any time. But those were direct flights.
SNYDERRight. And if it's nonstop, I wouldn't have any qualms about doing it because you really are -- you're not -- you know, the child is not out of your view or the person who's picking the child up, you know, except when you're on the airplane. So, sure, there could be a mechanical issue. They have to divert something like that. But that's a very rare type of situation. So it's really that connecting point where I think it's the greatest potential weakness for something to go wrong.
ROBERTSWell, you know, that was the other interesting reaction to the blog posts about the 10-year-old was the number of people who said, is she the last 10-year-old in America who doesn't have a cell phone? 'Cause she actually wasn't able to use a phone to get in touch with her parents.
SNYDERYeah. That would certainly have solved, you know, much of the anxiety in this situation, at least, where if they could have just called their child, and she could have said, yeah, you know, I'm OK. But, you know, not everyone wants their kid to have a cell phone, especially at that young of an age. But, you know, it might be worth investing in a prepaid cell or something like that as a little bit of a precautionary effort if you're gonna do something like this.
ROBERTSRight. I'm sure you can find an equal number of blog posts of people saying, it's outrageous that 10-year-olds think they need cell phones.
ROBERTSLet's take a call from Gloria in Loudoun County. Gloria, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GLORIAThank you for having me.
GLORIAMy comment is I can't understand how there wouldn't be some sort of positive handoff or warm transfer system, as it were, where the responsible party on United Airlines would not let go of control or responsibility for the child before the child was handed off to the next responsible party instead of just sort of throwing her over the wall and letting her land up in the waiting area without knowing that somebody was definitely there and taking over responsibility, knowing who that person was and handing her over positively.
ROBERTSYeah. Brett Snyder, how is it supposed to work? The escort is supposed to actually come on the plane and get the minor, right?
SNYDERWell -- so it can depend on exactly what the situation is. But if it's a regular connection where, you know, she's gonna get off the airplane and then go straight to her connecting flight, then yeah, the -- often, the flight attendant will hand off the child to the escort, and they'll take them over to the next gate and they'll put them on. Sometimes the gate agent will get involved in between if needed. You know, they'll hand them off to the gate agent, and the gate agent will hand them off to the flight attendant.
SNYDERIf there's a really long connection, then they'll take them to some sort of room that the airlines usually have set up where they can wait out their time and still, you know, under some sort of supervision. But I think the, you know, when you're thinking about the positive hand off, it is supposed to be like that and -- though I've heard a couple of different instances of what happened on this particular flight, it sounds like the gate agent was the one that took the handoff and then just had the kid sit there, you know, at the gate while doing a million different things.
SNYDERAnd that's -- one of the things that happens today is there are a lot fewer people doing a lot more work at the gates in the airlines, and so it's possible that because the escort didn't show up, that, you know, kind of escaped the gate agent's mind for a minute or two. But again, I wasn't there so I don't know exactly what happened in that instance.
ROBERTSLet's here from Judith in Annandale. Judith, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
JUDITHHi. Thank you for taking my call. First-time caller.
ROBERTSOh, good. Welcome.
JUDITHWell, we had a good experience actually that I'd like to relay to you. My daughter at the time was 15, and she was flying solo all the way out to South Dakota for a program, for a three-week program. Now, she had never flown alone. And it's not because we wouldn't have allowed it. It just never came up. She had flown with a group twice, but she's never done this alone. This was a really crazy situation. She not only -- she had to change three times, and one of them was changing to another airline.
JUDITHI'm sure your guest would think I was really nutty. Well, the only problem is the night before, she had had very little sleep because it was all last minute. She'd been accepted last minute. She had about two hours sleep. And I was getting a little nervous. I will tell you, the airlines, they were a little surprised and they said, you sure you don't want an escort? But she didn't want an escort. My daughter has ADD. So you'd think two-hour sleep, ADD, this is not gonna go well. But she rose to the occasion.
JUDITHWhat I did is that I called her at every part where she had to change. She did extremely well. She was in Denver, and she's a budding architect. So she's in the Denver Airport taking pictures of the airport, and I said to her, you need to get on that plane. But it worked really, really well. She was fine until the airline attendant said, are you sure you want her doing this alone? And she had wanted to. She became a little concerned, and she said, can you come with me?
JUDITHAnd I said all the way to South Dakota at the last minute? I don't think so. I can't afford it. So that was my concern, that she was, you know, two-hour sleep, which we wouldn't have allowed, but she was up all night packing. And she did absolutely beautifully. It went really, really well. But the airline was surprised that we were doing this first time. But that was a really good experience, and it really empowered her.
JUDITHI should add, though, she's a highly intelligent and creative person. When we got back and we went to do her medication update for school starting, the person that we deal with was very surprised, ADD and she was able to do this? And I said, 'cause we never sent her messages that she can't. But she really rose to the occasion and did beautifully. I was just so proud of her.
ROBERTSJudith, thank you so much for your call. I mean, like, so many parenting things just kind of comes down to know your own kid and what they can handle. Here's Cynthia in Fairfax, Va. Cynthia, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
CYNTHIAHi. Thank you very much. I'll take you off speaker since I was listening.
CYNTHIAI just wanted to say that I worked in the travel industry for many years and -- from the '80s into the '90s. And even at that time when the airlines were handling this themselves without farming it out, I would not recommend to any of my customers that they give -- put their child on anything other than a non-stop flight or a direct flight that maybe made the touchdown but did not -- the child did not have to change airlines, excuse me, flights because these things have been happening for a very, very long time.
CYNTHIAThis is news today, but this -- I can tell you that this has happened many times with different airlines. So even that extra $99, I would say to someone it's -- if you can get a nonstop, if it's a little bit more money, if you can, go ahead and do it. I mean, this is your child's life, so I wouldn't trust the airlines. And I have the experience, the professional experience there.
ROBERTSThank you for that input, Cynthia. Let's hear from John in Leesburg, Va. John, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
JOHNThank you. When you consider being at airplanes with 500 and some people on it, I know -- my wife and I have traveled. We have, one more than one occasion, found some child sitting behind us who was crying because, at 10 or 12 years old, he had not managed to get a meal. And certainly, everybody takes charge when that happens but, you know, for flights that -- I mean, many times I have been 24, 48 hours late getting to wherever it was due to snow storms, due to things beyond the control of the airlines.
JOHNWhy, in a world where most people are concerned about putting their child in a school bus that they're going to get snatched, would you put them in an airplane and assume that they're gonna get where they're supposed to go?
ROBERTSJohn, thanks for your call. And actually, Brett Snyder, there was another story recently with the parents being concerned that airlines have gone the other direction, that a man was moved from the seat next to an unaccompanied minor because the airline had a policy that only women could sit next to kids.
SNYDERYeah. That's been something that, you know, several airlines have talked about over the years as, how can we make sure that, you know, that the child who's traveling alone is gonna be as safe as possible? And some have apparently made that decision that, you know, sitting next to a man is somehow a threat. You know, I would say that's probably going overboard there but, you know, if you're a parent sending your child on long flights to faraway places, then, you know, I guess some people just wanna be more cautious or some airlines just wanna be more cautious.
ROBERTSWe have a bunch of tweets from positive experiences. "I flew solo when I was 12. I missed the connection, but they took great care of me." We have "I flew unaccompanied at 9. I don't think my parents needed to sign up for any extra service." "I was a child that traveled unaccompanied without any problems. It's not a big deal." So several positive experiences.
ROBERTSWe also have a tweet from Kim, who says, "I remember after landing in my grandma's city, my family waiting there at the gate. Don't they let people do that anymore?" What is the policy about someone who doesn't have a ticket coming through security?
SNYDERFor an unaccompanied minor, you can definitely get through. You can get a gate pass, and you just go to the ticket counter. It will be in the system if they're unaccompanied. But you can also do that if you have, you know, an elderly relative that you're picking up or something like that. They'll give you a gate pass. You can go straight to the gate. So that's not -- that shouldn't be an issue, being there right when the, you know, the child walks out of the jet way.
SNYDERBut it's really that connecting point, again, that's sort of the issue where there isn't anyone who's gonna meet the child there except for someone who works for the airline or one of its contractors.
ROBERTSAnd so what is sort of your final advice on this? Don't take a -- don't send your kid on a connecting flight?
SNYDERWell, I think going back to that caller that was talking about South Dakota, you mentioned, you know, know your own child. I think that's absolutely right. There are plenty of 15-year-olds or younger that can navigate this on their own, you know, and that's fine. Know what your child is capable of. But be aware that if you are going to send your child on a connecting flight, that you wanna try and make sure that, you know, they would be able to handle themselves in case something does go wrong.
SNYDERMaybe having a cell phone is a great idea for something like that. But ultimately, what I would say is if you have any concerns about it try to go somewhere where you can take a non-stop flight so you really don't have to worry about, you know, that middle point causing problems. Or if you can afford it -- and, of course, this can be a burden for a lot of people -- fly with them, you know, take them out drop them off and then go back again to pick them up.
ROBERTSAnd we have to leave it there. Thank you so much. Brett Snyder, president and chief airline dork of Cranky Flier. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you so much for listening.
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