United Kicks 13 Year Old Unaccompanied Minor Off Last Flight of the Night

A 13 year old in and airport for the first time and flying for the first time as an unaccompanied minor was denied boarding on United.

The Albany – Washington Dulles flight couldn’t accommodate all of its passengers due to weight and balance issues. And United says the gate agent didn’t know they were bumping an unaccompanied minor.

The boy texted with his older brother, who has been his guardian since their father passed away last year.

Except they did. And a family member drove from Virginia to Albany to pick the boy up because they didn’t trust the airline to look after him.

United is reportedly refunding the flight, along with the unaccompanied minor fee, and paying the travel expenses for the trip from Virginia to Upstate New York.

(HT: The Winglet)

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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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. The headline on TV — “UA kicks 13yo off flight” — gives the impression the kid was misbehaving. I realize screen space is tight and I can’t immediately think of a better headline, but I just felt like commenting about this.

    Anyway, about the situation — I thought unaccompanied minors were not allowed to fly the last departure? Based on the text messages the 13-year-old sounded rather mature — did he tell any gate agent or flight attendant he was unaccompanied?

    Regardless of the answers, UA clearly comes out very wrong. I’m guessing the “travel expenses” UA is reimbursing does not include a valuation of driving from VA to NY, worried about a kid, in the middle of the night.

  2. @Mika Weight and balance on small aircraft protects airlines from paying IDB comp.

    This is essentially proof that the $150 UM fee is a nonsense fee that has no correlation whatsoever to any service rendered.

    I flew BA as a UM in the 90s and they had a pretty solid arrangement. We were escorted to the front of the security line, then to a UM lounge at LHR which was basically a game room. At boarding time, we were taken by a “chaperone” directly to our seats on the plane where we were the first to board. This is an actual service provided, and while I’m sure it was overpriced, it was at least something.

  3. Also wonder if over the wing pax services at ALB for UA are contracted out? Its hard to believe a rank and file legitimate career full time UA employee gate agent and service director would have managed to pull off a SNAFU like this? But I can fully believe its easily something a contractor would do or worse even.

  4. Frankly, I am not surprised, as this only reiterates a problematic culture. I say this from experience:

    Although I paid UA for a seat per FAA for my 2.5 year old daughter from Orlando-Chicago in February, 1993, the FA requested my wife to take her out of her required seat and put her in her lap so a stand-by could be at the last minute accommodated.

    Realizing the potential danger imposed upon my daughter without a seatbelt, and the overt violation of FAA regs, I hit UA hard via the FAA.. A review of the situation by FAA fined UA significantly. UA sheepishly refunded my daughter’s ticket and provided 3 comp ‘Y’ tickets.

    As a father, I was outraged; realized my wife new to flying had no idea of the violation, I could have slugged the FAs who knew how wrong it was. Better to build a record with FAA.

    Indeed, I hope this family goes to the FAA and litigates the hell out of UA! There is no excuse for this pathetic BS to ever happen! We should all be incensed.

  5. This has happened to me too with United (though I’m a big boy). Flying with a connection from IAD to PHL, they involuntarily denied me boarding due to the need to lighten the weight of the regional aircraft. They said that I was the one who paid the least for my fare so I was top on the list to be booted off the plane.

  6. If he DID NOT volunteer then he was a IDB – involuntary DB and should receive almost double the $500 offered for a volunteer. When passengers are taken off for oversales or weight balance issues, they offload the lowest fares and lowest loyalty tier and so on. So I can see how this could have been a error in the gate agents judgement, but clearly you can tell the kid is not over 18 even when he was pulled off the plane.

    Gate agents must process the compensation right at the gate once the flight is closed. If this was the last flight of the day, then they must provide for hotels, meals etc. and a confirmed seat on the next “available” flight. So not sure what really went on at the gate, nevertheless by saying they are working with their “vendor” United is already passing the buck. If its a United flight (even a United Express operated by whoever), United needs to take full responsibility here. Refunding the fare and costs is just the bare minimum.

  7. I flew by myself when i was 13 and i wasn’t an UM? i just flew like any other regular passenger. Word

  8. I have flown on many airlines such as all ththe US carriers like UA and AA and all foreign airlines before my marriage and after my marriage and from my experience the US based airlines are the most anti family, child unfriendly airlines and agents talk as if they are specially instructed to be unfriendly towards families.

  9. Wait a second…if this 13 year old was an unaccompanied minor, doesn’t a family member have to accompany him to the gate and wait there until the aircraft has pushed back? Where did that relative go?

  10. I looked at AA’s policies and UA’s policies, and let’s just say that UA’s are lacking. To an above poster’s point, AA prohibits UM’s from flying the last flight of the night AND requires that they be escorted to the gate by a family member, and that said family member must wait at the gate until the flight is airborne.

    UA? They have no such policy. They even suggest that at some airports, you can’t even bring your kid to the gate.

    UA committed a huge party foul here.

  11. UM problems will always be there. Parents do not let their kids go in the mall on their own but they will let them fly across the country with 100% strangers. To places the kids have never been because they think paying a $150 fee will protect them. Things go wrong and $150 will not save your kid.

  12. This irks me to my core. If someone kicked my younger brother off of his flight while he was alone, I’d raise hell.

    My question is if they kick passengers off for weight reasons, wouldn’t minors be the last to go, as they weigh the least?

    Has there been ridiculousness like this forever or are US airline companies severely lacking in common sense in the more recent years?

  13. @Justin You may be correct about UA not being required to pay an IDB fee for weight & balance issues, but there are numerous FT threads about people being paid compensation for these issues, not to mention that the text messages shown above appear to indicate that UA was offering up to $500 vouchers for volunteers.

  14. At thirteen one could fool the gate attendant. And he was old enough to speak up. Maybe the guardians are politically savvy and hope Chuck Schumer will rush to their defense. If so, they’ll score a big pay day.

  15. You’d think the gate agent would realize he was 13 once he got walked off the flight, and would have remedied the situation right then and there… but no. Untied, indeed. I wish things like this were more rare. 🙁

  16. “weight and balance issues” is a catchall BS excuse when United (or any other airlines that flies crappy RK’s) overbooks and wants the seat. I will bet you $1,000 that the plane did NOT go out with 4 empty seats. Same as UA using “weather” as an excuse for a cancellation when we all know that weather had nothing to do with the cancellation. It happens all the time and there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it.

  17. I’m wondering if there’s any civil action recourse you could take. This kind of nonsense seems to have gotten out of hand and only a slap in the face will bring the airlines back to reality that they can’t charge a fee for something and NOT follow through, especially when we’re talking about the lives of minors. IANAL but I can think of a few counts where maybe a MUCH larger lawsuit than the paltry refunds offered may makes some waves:

    Breach of Contract
    Reckless Endangerment (of a Minor)
    Negligence (Willful?)

    Can anyone with an actual law degree chime in on whether or not a civil suit would hold water?

  18. I’m guessing this would not have happened on one of Capt. Denny Flanagan’s flights.
    Truly a gem of a United pilot.

  19. My kids have flown on FlyBe and KLM as unaccompanied minors. They got their seats on an overbooked Embraer just fine and were clearly marked as UMs, even though my 11 year old is 5’6″.

    United’s policies are a shambles.

  20. My 11 year old son was flying as an UM on United this past summer from ORF-IAD, and his flight left without him. He was at the airport at least 90 minutes ahead of time, checked in and sitting at the gate 60 minutes ahead of time. He never heard the announcement for the plane departing, and nobody came looking for him (so what did we pay $150 for?). He was flying first class. Thankfully his grandmother was with him (she is not a traveler, so she did not hear/understand the announcement), and she took him to her house and brought him back to ORF the next day.

  21. @tomri- the closer analogy is “would you let you kid take a school excursion”, and the answer is yes- most of us realize there is a risk, but there’s an adult nominally in charge, and other support staff looking around and making sure that everyone gets on the bus.

    And I don’t pay $500 ($150 + the price of a ticket) for a school excursion. Honestly, there’s no reason, other than laziness and sloppiness, that UMs are not looked after properly.

  22. The bottom line here is that if the airline is charging extra for an UM then there should be some guaranteed service associated with that fee. If they can’t provide said service to get them to their intended destination safely and securely then they should just either stop charging for something that is clearly not guaranteed or just have a policy that they will not allow UM’s in the first place.

  23. Air Canada pulled this same stunt about 5 months ago. Except they didn’t apologize, didn’t refund the ticket, didn’t put the kid up in a hotel, didn’t ask for a volunteer, didn’t care he was 13. They did however gave him a $10.00 food voucher and the boy slept in the airport. At least United acknowledges the error and is making amends to fix it. Air Canada blamed their deplaned unaccompanied minor’s parents for not planning ahead. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/man-upset-air-canada-left-grandson-alone-overnight-in-airport-1.1385961

  24. Did anybody else notice the news anchor in the video at 1:26 used the phrase “unprotected minor” instead of unaccompanied?

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