Lawsuit: American Airlines ‘Misplaced’ Two Kids In A ‘Jail Cell’ Without Food Or Water

A woman is suing American Airlines saying that the Dallas-based carrier “misplaced” her 10 and 12 year old children. When American cancelled their connecting flight, she says that the airline put them up “in a cold, jail-cell-like room overnight without food, water, blankets, or pillows.”

The unaccompanied minors flew through Charlotte enroute to Syracuse, New York last summer. When the kids were stranded in Charlotte, American called the person set to pick them up at their destination. The family was given conflicting information about which flight they’d be on the next day, but were promised they’d be given a “nice room for unaccompanied minors where there were beds and their own bathroom.”

One of the sons told Vencill that they “had not had anything to eat or drink since the night before, not even a pretzel or snacks that are usually given out by the airline,” according to the suit.

[A kind] airport employee, the lawsuit alleges, wound up giving the children some food and drinks.

The lawsuit alleges that the kids were placed in a “freezing” apparent “lost children’s room” at the airport that was “akin to a jail cell” and spent the night on a sofa with the lights on before they boarded the flight the next day to Syracuse.

The airline refunded the accompanied minor fees the mother had paid. However she’s suing for recklessness and failure to follow the airline’s own procedures.

Here’s apparently what the room American Airlines has for unaccompanied minors stuck overnight in Miami looks like:

Children 5-14 years old flying solo have to be registered as unaccompanied minors, where airline staff escort them to the plane and meet the guardian picking them up on the other side. (The escort service is optional for children 15-17).

For $150 each way (no matter how many siblings are traveling together) unaccompanied minors get:

  • early boarding
  • a kids-only room in hub airports to wait for connections (children under 8 must fly non-stop)
  • escort to the gate and to meet the designated adult at their destination

Unaccompanied minors also receive a “Kid Kit” containing an activity book, snacks, puzzle, crayons, and a kids face mask. The box is actually given to the parent or guardian at check-in to give to the child at their discretion, so some aviation geek parents might take it home and keep it for themselves.

Credit: American Airlines

I traveled alone often as a young kid, though one of my early flight memories was of my father flying from Los Angeles to pick me up in New York and flying back with me to LA the same day. Sadly this was before modern frequent flyer programs.

When a kid needs to go from one place to another, sometimes the parent can’t take them (or can’t afford two tickets). Later flying solo I’d often travel on People Express out of Newark, and I loved buying their snack baskets and a soda on board. I was expected to dress in a shirt and tie, even flying out of Newark and even with what that terminal was like back then.

However I never had to connect. American will allow connections for children 8 years and older, however they won’t allow it on the last flight of the day from the final connection city unless that’s the only flight the airline operates on the route. Schedules were thinner in summer 2022 than they are today.

Airlines offer the unaccompanied minor service but I bet they wish they didn’t – it’s a service to customers more than a revenue-generator for the airline given the staff time, paperwork, and risk involved (including reputational risk). Unaccompanied minor service entails some risk because though the airline incurs some responsibility, it’s still a service being offered by a U.S. airline. Keep that in mind when you sign up.

At least if your child is flying unaccompanied on a non-stop you can go back to the airport and collect them if their flight is cancelled and they will not be traveling same day. As a connecting passenger, in a far-away city, there’s a lot less that you can do.

Back in May 2020 American Airlines was warning parents that due to the global pandemic there wouldn’t be much food available in coach, so pack a lunch. There’s still not.

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. @Gary I have a question for you about this story, given that I am on record as saying that IMO, none of the US majors is any better than the other: AA, DL or UA.
    While you seem to have a better set of informants at AA that the other two majors, is there any reason to believe either of the other two would have performed better? I’m honestly not sure they would, and that it’s just AA’s bad luck to get caught here.
    If I am honest, I am somewhat disinterested in children stories as I don’t have any. However they are relatively vulnerable and defenseless so we should look out for them.
    I suppose a reasonable question is, what do you think happened here?

  2. My first thought was if I was young and traveling alone, my Mom would have packed me a lunch. 2 PB&J’s— 1 for the first leg, 1 for the 2nd leg. Maybe a banana or a cookie if I was lucky. She also would have given me an emergency $10 bill.

    Sucks the kids were stuck overnight– it’s a lose-lose for all parties involved—- but the airline didn’t misplace their kids. They went to a room with a sofa in it to sleep. Are they supposed to send them to a Westin hotel? They really aren’t equipped for situations like this. Kids slept in bus stations overnight when I was growing up. I’d rather be stuck overnight in an airport as a kid- than take another Greyhound bus halfway across the Country.

    ‘Airlines offer the unaccompanied minor service but I bet they wish they didn’t ” You are correct sir. Every airline right now is probably re-evaluating that service.

  3. I hope that the lawsuit goes through and AA has to pay a lot. If the story is correct, I think that AA will settle before a jury trial because the jury would be sympathetic to the children.

  4. Sad that a Karen wants to blame an airline for ensuring the safety of her kids due to an overnight delay. They weren’t harmed and got to their destination safely.

    This “sue everybody” is crazy. I’m all for eliminating civil lawsuits. People need to put on their big boy pants, understand things don’t always go like expected and deal with it. Treating any perceived slight as lottery ticket is shameful. And don’t get me started on the scum of the earth ambulance chasers advertising all over the place. They make the old joke “what do you call a bus load of attorneys that goes of a cliff with an empty seat – a tragedy (due to the empty seat)” a reality!

  5. Um. Truthfully when the kids were 10 & 12 would I believe it was a jail like facility? No food? Hmm. I might guess it was more no freedom that upset them. However when an airline accepts responsibility for kids I would expect a guardian of some sort to send frequent updates with where they were and when and what they have been fed in an Irrop situation.

  6. Dave, the picture of the cot is in the room in Miami. These kids stayed in a room with a couch in Charlotte…..

  7. The lawsuit needs to happen as a president that when an airline makes a commitment to take care of kids that they hold true to that. The parents would be on the wrong end of a child welfare services investigation. If they did this to their kids. It is not a Karen filing a lawsuit to get money. It is a parent trying to make sure that the message gets across that the behavior here was unacceptable. And you don’t know that this wasn’t mentally harmful to them, and not in the “modern youth are too fragile” sense, but that feeling trapped and helpless is bad enough but can be even worse if someone has already had traumatic experiences.

    Yes, parents should be more proactive about providing backup solutions for emergencies, but at the same time the airline should have made some simple accommodations for the kids too, rather than showing they just don’t care because they don’t have to.

    Also, the unaccompanied minor programs are a good thing, and can easily be handled in a safe way. One CHEAP component is to require all minors to wear a radio communication and tracking device (wrist watch style, lanyard, or magnetic clip to clothing), and the other end of the device to be in the constant possession of the airport person who hands it to a designated flight attendant who hands it off to the next airport person. Such a device would have instant 2 way radio, and a proximity alarm if it gets out of range or loses connection to the other device. Each device would be tracked like luggage too, so the guardian would be given constant alerts on the boarding / arrival and handoffs.== Very simple and cheap tech that’s easily integrated into the existing system. Also, parents should sign permission for additional charges regarding taking care of the kids in case of any emergency, such as providing extra care needs. And the airports just need a designated room / office equipped for proper sleeping as needed. A portable bed and blankets in a room where lights can be turned off and blackout curtains used. Again, most airlines already have such a space for their staff anyways, or if not then an unused office can be easily converted.

  8. Thank goodness you can sue.

    The airline says “we’ll take good care of your kids” and asks $300, then delivers this cr@p, who’s there to keep them accountable?

    U.S. Courts, that’s who.

    Retired Gambler’s nirvana is lawlessness. No thanks; I much prefer law and order.

  9. The presence of the cots obviously implies they have procedures for kids getting stranded–but it seems those provisions were incomplete. Beancounters love to trim margins as close to zero as they can–and the result is no redundancy in case of failure. And she says no food or water–but they got snacks so obviously that’s only partially true.

    I don’t think this warrants a big payout but just refunding the fee certainly isn’t enough.

  10. The kids are entitled to be safe and secure at all times. The airlines are the custodians of these kids. There should be adequate, private and safe places, under the watchful eyes of airline/airport security, that the kids can overnight with pillows and blankets, etc. They should be fed full meals until such time as they are returned to their legal guardians. Because the airline failed in the contracted travel for these minors, they should be sanctioned by the FAA (or governing authority) and a full refund of the price of the tickets. There is NO…NONE…NADA…BUPKIS excuse that the airline can offer.

  11. Has this mother or her children ever slept on a couch before? Oh, the horror! As far as the food situation, do we know what time they were in the room? If it was early evening then absolutely they should have been provided food or the option to purchase some(Can’t imagine sending a child off without some money). If it was midnight, different story. Everyone is entitled to compensation nowadays. I usually don’t defend the airlines but, I don’t see them being guilty of anything here except lackluster service which is actually normal.

  12. This service would be nearly impossible for any organization to provide consistently, flawlessly, and economically. A few more lawsuits like this and we should expect to see it either eliminated or prices raised to a level where a ticket for a parent would be cheaper.

  13. @Scudder:
    > This service would be nearly impossible for any organization to provide consistently, flawlessly, and economically. A few more lawsuits like this and we should expect to see it either eliminated or prices raised to a level where a ticket for a parent would be cheaper.

    I don’t think anyone thinks it should be flawless. There’s a limit to how much disruption an airline can be expected to cope with. However, this case clearly involves a planned operation (they had the cots) where they failed to plan for food and water. Airlines are used to providing totally inadequate provisions for delays for adults (good luck actually feeding yourself with a food voucher, good luck with hotel vouchers), but adults can at least work around that. Children can’t. Hey, at a minimum store some cases of water with the cots!

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