How American Airlines Handled One Flight Yesterday With Undocumented Children Onboard

Yesterday a group of teenagers were being escorted without parents onboard an American Airlines flight from McAllen, Texas to Dallas and onward to New York LaGuardia.

Flight crew on the LaGuardia segment expressed concern. Yesterday’s announcements by American, United, and some other airlines (but pointedly not Delta) that they were asking the federal government not to use their aircraft to separate children from their families was largely a reaction to concerns being expressed fly flight attendants. Whatever you think of the immigration issue, you can probably imagine it’s hard for a person who feels like they are personally a part of that separation. Flight attendants were talking about refusing to operate flights.

American decided to delay the flight to investigate. The escorts assured that the children were actually being reunited with families in New York. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was contacted and confirmed this.

It likely didn’t hurt that the CEO of UNICEF USA was onboard the flight from Dallas to New York LaGuardia. She shared this story on Facebook,

Today when American Airlines announced that they would NOT transport children who had been forcibly separated from their families at our border, I was so impressed with their decision to put children first and business second. And tonight I find myself on an AA flight with kids who crossed into our country unaccompanied and are being brought to NYC assisted by Catholic charities.

Our crew held up our departure to ensure the status of these children and not only did a Spanish-speaking member of the crew welcome them but when I offered to pay for meals for them I learned that AA was making food available to them at no cost.

Copyright: andreyuu / 123RF Stock Photo

It’s not clear what American would have done if the children were being sent away from their families. Would they have removed the children who had valid tickets from the flight? If so, on what legal basis?

Passengers are removed from planes all the time without proper cause. While the pilot of an aircraft is more or less like a ship’s captain in his authority, that authority to remove passengers is not actually unlimited. There needs to be a valid basis for the decision, it cannot be arbitrary or contrary to law. It cannot be a discriminatory decision such as one based on race or religion.

Most passengers aren’t in a position to push back. The federal government is the regulator of airlines through its Department of Transportation. At the end of the day the law is likely on the side of the federal government here.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. All of a sudden, the flight attendants on an American flight become engaged.

    Why aren’t they like that all of the time, instead of hiding in the cabin, playing with their cell phones and eating?


  2. It can’t be discriminatory, sure. But why can’t it be arbitrary? Generally businesses can refuse service to people for any reason, as long as it’s not related to a protected class (eg race or religion). Is there some other regulation that governs airlines specifically?

  3. WilliamC

    You are right on. It’s the same as the fact that this has been going on for years and now it’s a problem?

  4. Contract it out, fill up an entire plane. Probably save money doing it this way anyhow. Either that, push the business to a foreign flagged carrier.

  5. However, the federal government can’t make a flight crew operate the flight. And thinking if they tried to get AA (or any carrier) to get another crew in to operate the flight, they wouldn’t operate it either. It’s like when Stephen Wolf tried to fly United to Paris when he ran US Airways and the United crews refused to fly if he was on.

  6. CLTFlyer-

    American Airlines can’t make the flight crew perform it’s normal duties.

  7. never any mention in the press of the corrupt govs. of the countries that cause the situation they have to flee from. Put the blame where it belongs.

  8. “Would they have removed the children who had valid tickets from the flight? If so, on what legal basis?”

    Why a given flight crew might choose to operate a given flight, or why not, or on what terms, is between that crew and the airline. The crews are on the front lines of AA’s announced decision not to transport children split from their parents. So, we might assume that the crew simply orders the children and ICE agents off, the gate agents refund the tickets, and AA does not punish the crew.

    As we all know from umpteen prior incidents, under the airlines’ contracts of carriage, refunding the ticket following a refusal to transport a passenger is pretty much the end of the dispute. Whether there is language in the GSA contract carrier program that alters this, I don’t know.

  9. Also, in general in the current crisis, you can’t conclude that a child who is being treated and characterized as “unaccompanied” by DHS & HHS was unaccompanied when they traveled and crossed the border.

    The legal rationale behind separating families goes like this: parent(s) are arrested at the border for illegal entry, a misdemeanor, regardless of their assertion of an asylum claim, and taken to jail. Since the child can’t go with the parent to adult jail, the child is – voila – unaccompanied, and put into that process.

    There are likely still children crossing that are truly unaccompanied, as in, their parents are still in central America. It may be that the kids on the plane discussed in the post were interviewed directly, and are among this set of kids.

  10. @WilliamC

    Because they are like most Americans. Nothing is more important than sports or TV, until something important happens that reminds them that there really are some vital issues our there.

  11. I was on this flight- AA2716. The captain verified that they were not a part of the govt’s agenda and the flight was delayed some 35mins. Upon landing at LGA there were visibly upset flight attendants having been lied to by the govt before departure in Dallas along with being lied to by the escort – who clearly was a govt employee. WiFi on planes enables and empowers people to communicate. There were 200+ protesters at LGA and the children whisked away in an unmarked van. American did their part and kudos to the flight crew and captain, but the govt misled AA. Not a political statement, just facts from being on the flight.

  12. Hard to know facts in every case, but if employees say they want to be sure they are not aiding unnecessary child-parent separation, whether related to immigration debate or not, i applaud them for checking into the kids’ situation before partipating.

  13. Can’t they be transported to the camps in boxcars? This is how they like to travel anyway, isn’t it?

  14. We are not talking just one flight but scores with 20 plus children per flight for several years. Are they really going to their parents or somewhere else and to whom? I live in McAllen and have seen 4-6 children mostly boys per male adult in groups of 20 plus going by border patrol and bypassing security to speed up boarding. I’m sure they were checked elsewhere since all were wearing the same shirts ,pants , and sneakers with identical single bag carryons. Others from McAllen have also seen this scenario played over and over. Delta participated at one time I believe but discontinued for whatever reason. I have a hard time believing that all the children have parents in the Northeast.we need more info from our government which must be paying millions for these flights.God bless these children that they do not become prey.

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