American Airlines is getting lots of media attention this week for a very bad reason. After a flight was delayed, the airline kept nine unaccompanied minors overnight, without contacting their parents, and without providing any meals. The parents now say they are considering legal action.
It all began on Friday, when children from Washington and Oregon headed home after a week at Camp New Friends, a special summer program in Virginia for children with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes benign tumors on nerve tissue. The children, at least one of them an 8-year-old, were connecting in Charlotte, North Carolina for a flight to Portland, Oregon.
American was paid an unaccompanied minor fee of $300 per child, a fee that was supposed to ensure that the child was boarded onto the correct plane, was chaperoned during connections between flights, and that parents or guardians would be contacted in case of a delayed or canceled flight. And indeed, when the first flight landed in Charlotte, the children were escorted to their connecting flight to Portland. Since the first flight arrived late, escorts hurried the children to their next flight and had no time to stop for food. That last item is significant because of what came next.
The Portland flight, Flight 1736, faced a long series of delays. According to the Washington Post, there was a fuel spill on the tarmac. Then the airline had to find replacements for the pilot and co-pilot, who had worked too many hours. All in all, according to Kristie Hoyt, mother of 8-year-old Hudson Hoyt, who was on the flight, they were kept sitting in the plane on the tarmac for at least five hours.
As for the children's parents, they were increasingly frantic. Their kids had called or texted to say that the flight was delayed, but they didn't know much more, and American, despite its stated policy, did not contact any of the parents, Hoyt says. She says the airline refused her request for the phone number of a representative who could keep her updated on the situation. Eventually, she phoned one of the other children in the group, a 12-year-old, and had that child hand the phone to a flight attendant.
Going to sleep--on the floor--with no dinner.
In the end, American had to reschedule the flight for the following morning. The children were taken to American's unaccompanied minor room in the Charlotte airport, where they spent the night. There wasn't enough furniture to accommodate them all, so some slept on the floor. At least some of them had missed lunch in the rush to get them on the plane in Charlotte, but they weren't given dinner either. One of the kids, 14-year-old Kelley Phillips, told a Portland TV station that while kept overnight, the children were given few bathroom breaks and no facilities to charge their mobile phones. "The only thing we had were crackers and soda, which isn't good because we need real food to be able to take our medication," she added.
The children say they were rushed from their overnight accommodations onto a plane around 6 a.m. the next day, although again there were a couple of hours' delay before takeoff. The hungry children had been promised breakfast on the flight, and Hoyt was told the flight was delayed because "the catering service wasn't delivered." But the children still weren't fed on their way to Portland. When Hoyt finally met up with her traumatized 8-year-old at the Portland airport, the children were 13 hours late and hadn't had a proper meal in 24 hours, she says. And then, despite the airline's promise that unaccompanied minors would be "released to the appropriate person at their destination," she says she was asked to sign for someone else's child.
Since arriving home, the children and parents have been featured in many news reports. They also say they are looking into their options for legal action. Meantime, American issued an apology for the incident. One airline representative sent this statement to USA Today: "Unfortunately, after boarding Flight 1736 from Charlotte to Portland on Friday, the flight experienced a mechanical delay that caused it to remain in Charlotte overnight. The children were kept in our dedicated unaccompanied minor room where they were kept safe and comfortable in the care of American Airlines personnel at all times." Perhaps they were safe. But to describe sleeping on the floor without lunch or dinner as "comfortable" is stretching things.
In a statement received by the Washington Post, the airline said, "We will be reviewing with our teams internally to understand how we can do better next time." That sounds like a good idea, but in the meanwhile there's still this time to deal with. The smart move might be for American to settle quickly with the parents, before it does any further damage to its brand.