Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? United put a little boy on a flight to Dusseldorf instead of Stockholm. But the reality is a bit more complicated, of course.
I’ve taken a day to gather the facts and offer this timeline of events that helps to put situation in context.
- A mother booked an SAS ticket for her 14-year-old son from Raleigh-Durham (RDU) – Newark (EWR) – Stockholm (ARN), with the first segment operated by United and the second by SAS.
- SAS’s unaccompanied minor policy states that children aged 12-17 can travel alone.
- United’s unaccompanied minor policy states that children must be at least age 15 to travel alone.
- At check-in in RDU, the mother was informed that her son could not travel alone to Newark due to United’s policy.
- But there was another issue – according to united.com, unaccompanied minors are not permitted to make international connections on non-United flights.
- An exception was made due the nature of the circumstances
- United charged the mother $150, the standard fee for its unaccompanied minor service
- In Newark, the boy landed in Terminal C and was escorted to Terminal B, where the SAS flight was scheduled to depart from Gate B65
- At the gate, United turned over the boy to the custody of the contract staff jointly handling gate operations for SAS and Eurowings
- A gate change occurred and the Eurowings flight was now departing from B65
- Ground staff handed the boy the boarding pass of another passenger, and he took his seat onboard.
- The passenger actually assigned to his seat showed up, but said nothing and took the open seat next to him
- As the plane pushed back, the boy himself realized he was on the wrong flight and called his mother.
- The boy alerted the flight attendants that he was on the wrong flight
- Notifying the captain, the aircraft returned to the gate and the boy was offloaded
- By this time, his SAS flight had already departed, so he was booked on a later SAS flight to Copenhagen with a connection to Stockholm
- United claims it reached out to the mother
- The mother claims United never reached out
- United refunded the $150 unaccompanied minor fee
A lot of mistakes here, weren’t there? Certainly United is not absolved of all blame if it was tasked with ensuring the boy made his connection and did not notice the last-minute gate change for the SAS flight.
At the same time, did the SAS/Eurowings staff not even bother to look at the boy’s boarding pass or passport? Why was he handed the boarding pass of another passenger? Why didn’t the gate reader beep when the actual passenger tried to board with the same assignment? I reached out to Eurowings for clarification and did not hear back.
United did tell me:
The safety and well-being of all of our customers is our top priority, and we have been in frequent contact with the young man’s family to confirm his safety and to apologize for this issue. Once Eurowings recognized that he had boarded the wrong aircraft in Newark, the plane returned to the gate – before taking off. Our staff then assisted the young customer to ensure that he boarded the correct rebooked flight later that evening. We have confirmed that this young customer safely reached his destination.
All’s well that ends well, I suppose. It will be something the boy can laugh about one day. Good thing he had the sense to alert the flight crew when he heard all the German…Eurowings offers a far inferior product to SAS in economy!
Lastly, I think SAS has a far better unaccompanied minor policy than United concerning age limits. 14 years old is an age I felt fully comfortable traveling alone. I don’t think the boy would have boarded the wrong flight on his own, even with the gate change. Perhaps United should consider letting young teenagers fly alone.
Rules exist due to best general practices, not because they are necessarily best in a particular situation. If the United agent was going to make an exception in RDU, perhaps the boy should just have been allowed to fly alone in the first place.