United Puts Unaccompanied Minor on Flight to the Wrong Country

Last night Brenda Berg reported on Twitter that her son had flown as an unaccompanied minor on United Airlines from Raleigh Durham to Newark, intending to connect on to Stockholm on SAS. However United put him on a Eurowings flight to Germany instead.

  • She says United accepted the boy for international travel but turned him over to the wrong airline
  • And Eurowings boarded him onto the aircraft, prepared to fly him to the wrong country, even without a boarding pass for that flight.

United Newark Terminal C

I can only imagine this woman’s horror because she couldn’t even get through to United. If you don’t have elite status telephone wait times are interminable, and that’s just to get access to an agent without much motivation or empowerment to do anything that requires more than keystrokes on their computer.

Turning to twitter is natural but even then the assistance can be… uneven.

It seems that the boy’s own initiative may be what stopped this from becoming an international disaster.

And he’s better off unaccompanied. SAS booked him onto the late flight to Copenhagen connecting to Stockholm.

United charges $150 each way for unaccompanied minors and their policy is to offer the service only on non-stop flights, and not to offer it connecting to or from partner airlines. Apparently, then, what the boy’s mother reports happened began against policy (accepting her son) in the first place. United’s policy suggests they know something like this might happen.

United Airlines at Newark

It seems to me that United shouldn’t have been willing to do more than take him as an unaccompanied minor on their non-stop flight, not on a connecting ticket. That’s not helpful to the parents, but it’s their policy and clearly in this instance what they were capable of delivering on. It’s the Newark transfer where things went wrong.

The problem here is that their policy required unaccompanied minor status for the boy but the parents had purchased a connecting ticket. Brenda Berg tells me, “We booked through SAS Air and kids his age fly without assistance. We were surprised when we showed up at RDU that United required us to purchase the UM assistance. Our son would have easily made the transfer on his own but he trusted them and went where they told him to go.” She explains “someone from United said ‘we made an exception for you.'”

I feel badly for the Eurowings passengers who were delayed by this — but it doesn’t seem fare that the young boy was shamed over the debacle.

I’ve reached out to United and hopefully will hear back for their statement once the business day begins.

Update: United shares an apology confirming the details of the story, and I have further information on how this all actually happened.

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 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. Disgraceful inattention to detail by United. Clearly they have sloppy procedures in place, and someone who should have been super-responsible was just plain careless.

  2. Hilarious! Greedy, seeking to grab fees from the passenger that doesn’t belong to them. There’s nothing wrong with someone above the age of 12 flying by themselves. United deserves to be amply shamed for fat-fingering such an easy task.

  3. A debacle all around. Does nobody look at or scan a boarding pass at United or Eurowings? This isn’t a policy failure so much as gross incompetence. I don’t think anyone has a policy to permit Stockholm bound passengers of any age on flights to Dusseldorf. Any chance there was a gate change that went unnoticed?

  4. I was on this flight.
    I cannot recall (sitting a few rows in front) that the young passenger was at all yelled at or asked to apologize.
    Eurowings on the other hand did not inform anyone while the plane is not departing for almost an hour, and then finally blamed US security measures that we had to turn back to the gate. And yes, we were first position right before the runway.

  5. How does a 14 year old not realize they’re about to board not only the wrong flight, but the wrong airline…

  6. You should be doing more personal investigation before publishing this. This story doesn’t add up at all. All you have are some tweets from a person on the internet that you don’t know, but hey at least you’ll get those ad revenues for the clicks, right?

  7. The agents certainly never should have put him on that plane without a boarding pass, but can we also ask why the 14 year-old went along with it? My 13 year-old daughter can navigate airports like a champ and would have insisted on calling us the second things looked fishy (not after pushback on the wrong flight). So it seems from booking to flying, basically everyone involved messed up.

  8. I’m surprised airlines would even provide such a service. They are just asking for lawsuits. I’ve been on several flights where a passenger had to be relocated because some pervert was harassing them. A unaccompanied child is just being set up for trauma that might destroy their lives. Parents should never allow a child below the age of 16 to fly unaccompanied. Given all the psychopaths out there disguised as upright adults, it’s practically criminal neglect to do so.

  9. @JohnR – I was in touch with the mother. I reached out to United which is still working on a statement but doesn’t deny the incident. A comment above yours is from a passenger on the flight the boy was mistakenly put on.

  10. @robert pack
    I am the boy’s sister… I am nearly 18 but when an adult points me in the “correct” direction (not to mention it being their JOB to help me through) I usually will follow. MY BROTHER is the reason that he got off. He noticed they were speaking German… Not Swedish. What fourteen-year-old boy would pay any mind to that!! I know plenty of boys who would put their earbuds in and go with the flow. He sprung into action and immediately told someone. My brother is not a very outspoken person so for him to have done what he did (WITH a positive attitude might I add) speaks volumes. Your daughter may do that but I don’t feel you have the right to speak on what someone else should have done under the trusted watch of a supervisor…

  11. Also very important is that United FORCED Ms. Borg to pay for her TEENAGE son to fly “accompanied”. Both she and her son, it seems, would have preferred to fly like any other traveler and, from his subsequent action, it seems like he would have done (and did!) very well.

    Back in the Stone Age when my parents put me on planes, unaccompanied minor status was required to something sensible like 11 years old. Now, many US airlines require a chaperone until kids turn 16. You’d think that with mobile phones, it would be easier for kids to travel without, but you’d be wrong.

    We have a 13 and a 15 year-old and go out of our way to send them on airlines where they can travel normally, both to avoid the fee and to give and teach them independence. This means going out of our way to fly European airlines to Europe and Alaska (where possible) domestically. Whatever difference in base fare is usually more than made up for in saving the UM fee and, if not, in hassle on both ends.

  12. When I was around that age, I traveled both by plane and by greyhound bus extensively by myself.
    I came from a divorced family and my mother and father lived states apart. Nobody thought anything about it. I personally think that children need to learn/be taught how to fend for themselves, in training for adult life. When you are an adult, there is no adult lurking about to save you from your decisions or the outside world.

  13. This sounds fishy; UA’s UM policy is clear: UA flights only point to point on UA, no connections to any airline. I’m thinking the kid had 2 separate tickets. Another thing, UA doesn’t check in other airlines flights at EWR or anywhere else. When the mom piled on the complaints about onboard shaming (which was refuted by another passenger) it sounds like someone is looking for a payday.

  14. As far as I see as a 14 yr old he was booked as an adult and the UM service was. It requested. United decided he was a UM and requested a fee. They failed from that point onwards to realise he had a connection which is against their policy. Furthermore united put him on the wrong flight. Now how on earth can someone be boarded on a flight for which they have no booking or ticket ?
    If united had transferred him to the correct flight it wouldn’t have been an issue , although it’s against their policy.
    In the eyes of the law he is a minor therefore united sd have stepped up at EWR and offered to reroute him and provide food and at the same time called his mother promptly

  15. SAS and Eurowings don’t even have the same reservation system, so it would be technically impossible for something like this to even happen unless a check-in agent waived just about everything under the son, including the fare itself to build a new reservation for the kid to check him in. Something doesn’t add up at all.

  16. This is most likely the result of IT-related issues – the legacy of capital underinvestment at UAL continues to reverberate. I’m glad the kid took initiative and got himself out of a mess he didn’t create.

  17. My children flew internationally unaccompanied at that age in foreign exchange programs. I have also housed foreign exchange students who have flown accompanied between 14-17 years – it’s more common than you think. Nevertheless, it’s totally unbelievable they put him on the wrong flight – how did his boarding pass get through the machine?

  18. Seems everyone is quick to blame United and/or Eurowings.
    Am I the only one wondering why a kid is traveling alone to Europe? Where is the parent responsibility? The mother could have flown with the kid to EWR, accompany him to the correct gate to ensure he got on the plane and then taken a flight back home. Yes, I know, it would cost more, but as a parent, I never EVER trust someone else with my kid. Too many stories out there in regards to children. What is the price you are willing to pay to ensure you kid does not go missing?

  19. @PJ. Sorry you might mean well, but I have the following observations. (1) I am glad you have enough money to make these choices. My parents did not. They were doing the best they could with the money they had. (2) I have always thought the helicopter parents cause permanent damage to their children’s. The children never learn how to make responsible decisions. When they become adults, their irresponsibility is irreversible. (3) If you won’t let your kids do anything by themselves, your kids will rebel big time, and it will be your fault, 100%. (4) If they don’t rebel, then they will be neurotic forever. I see adults that have not separated from their parents every day. 40 years old and still living with mom. Not a pretty picture.

  20. Here is SAS’s UM policy, contrary to what the mom had said:

    “SAS offers an Unaccompanied Minor service for children age 5–17 on domestic flights and for children up to age 15 on all other flights.

    We do offer our Unaccompanied Minor service on flights to/from SAS destinations in Asia and the US, but if the child will be continuing the trip on another airline, this special assistance is not available.”

    This is probably what had happened: Reservation was made, either as 2 separate legs or as an adult. When they tried to check in, UA agent pointed out that UM cannot be accepted for connecting flights. Mom threw a hissy fit, similar to the rage displayed on Twitter. Agent, contrary to the policy, accepted the UM “as an exception”.

    However, this still does not explain how the child wandered off and boarded the wrong flight, especially with positive ID match required for an international flight.

  21. Setting aside the issue that a 14yo should be old enough to say something upon realizing that they are boarding the wrong airline to the wrong city…

    @ptahcha and others have the best point. Forget ID checking. What happened to scanning the boarding pass? Also how did seating work – was there by chance an unoccupied seat on the wrong place of the exact same seat number as printed on the BP?

  22. @ptacha

    I don’t think that’s contrary to what mom said. Mom said that SAS allows minors to fly without paying for the UM service. What you wrote doesn’t contradict that.

  23. Wow- new low for United, although somehow I’m not surprised.

    Two thoughts after reading comments-
    1) I’m glad Gary posted the story, even if he was still gathering info (ie hearing back from United). Good article and insights based on the info he had.
    2) try not to judge the parents. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but the moral of the story (in my opinion) is that United doesn’t really care nor was anyone at United willing to go above and beyond to help an obviously scared mom.

  24. I’ve worked for an airline and seen crazy stuff. Incompetent gate agents actually have the power to do things you wouldn’t expect, such that one really has to go out of their way to screw things up. It happens, especially with the Express carriers that typically higher lower wage, less experienced staff.

    It’s funny… airline lawyers (ok, lawyers everywhere) love to write pages of fine print. But what’s not clear on UA’s side is whether they will accept a minor for travel independent of the UM fee. Mom says she booked the ticket through SAS, which clearly complicates things. Mom suggests that the kid was going to fly by himself and be just fine with it, but the UA agent at RDU thought he was required to travel as a UM and pay the fee. Seems to me the real issue is a poorly trained UA agent who misunderstood a policy.

    As to why the kid got on the wrong flight? It happens, especially when someone who appears to know what they’re doing tells you to do something. Why they let him on the plane with the wrong ticket is beyond me though.

  25. Unbelievable some commenters are piling on the mother. Using terms like hissy fit? Shaming her for not being a helicopter parent? Her son was put on the wrong plane to the wrong country!

  26. It’s funny how people speak on the matter when they don’t know the full story. He was given a duplicate ticket of another passager on the plane. The passenger was in what my brother thought to be his seat so he quietly sat next to him instead thinking it was weird. THEY NEVER SCANNED THE TICKET. they also never opened the packet my brother carried with all of his information (I.e. passport and other identification) to see that the names DID NOT match up. My brother was taken directly from Unaccompanied minor holding area and put directly on the flight with no time to even realize he was getting on the wrong flight!!! He message my dad asking where Düsseldorf was and was confused why they were sending him to GERMANY!! And a response to the people saying why was he flying alone… my brother and I have flown to Sweden every single year (if not twice a year) to Sweden since we were born. We know the way to get around airports (I was on 100 airplanes before the age of 1). We are responsible for our age in this situation. To place blame on a kid who is barely into his teen years for an error clearly on the airline is beyond me.

  27. I love how quick everyone jumps on the parenting when clearly this parent was all over the problem in real-time.
    I’ve been traveling “alone” since I was 5. Nothing wrong with that, you just need someone on both ends. Past 12 or 13, you don’t even need that.

  28. So I want my 14 year old son to fly to Sweden. United has a clearly stated policy of not accepting unaccompanied minors that require a transfer, both on United and on another airline… SAS has a similar policy, but unaccomompanied minor status is only voluntary from 12-15.

    With this info, my son of 14 could be sent individually to each carriers end point, catch is, no one to sign for him at United in Newark. Foiled.

    Unless I book through SAS as an adult because there is no child fare for a 14 year old, don’t mention his age and arrive at United and argue that this was all arranged and seek an exception. I could just send him to Newark as a United accompanied minor, but noone to sign for him. I really don’t want to have to go with him to execute all this correctly. The agent would be on to my motive and probably seek a waiver, collect the United fee and see if someone at United will drop my son at SAS.

    In Newark, both SAS and Eurowings operate departing flights in Terminal B. Who would be escorting my son if a United agent DID bring them to the check in area for SAS and signed them over as required? Does the handling agent at Terminal B handle both airlines?

    More. To. Story.

  29. This doesn’t make since. The mother said United forced her to pay unaccompanied minor fee. First of all I don’t think the mother booked directly through United from Rdu to Arn and let the system know he is 14 yrs old. United system will blocked the reservation until you fill up all the questionnaire about the minor. What I think the mother booked the son as an adult and he was booked with 2 different PNR. The unaccompanied minor fee is only from point A to point B which is RDU to EWR.

  30. @ Gary. Do you know the young man’s sister is on your comment thread. She’s doing great, should update your article with her.

  31. Back in the day “unaccompanied minor” was a big Braniff button and getting between terminals at DFW by ourselves for 11 year old me and my 9 year old sister!

  32. All the knuckleheads above who think something is fishy need to practice reading comp.

    -They purchased one ticket via SAS and intended for him to fly without UM assistance.

    -SAS doesn’t fly to RDU so they booked him on a UA codeshare to EWR.

    -When they got to the airport, the UA agent forced them to pay UM fee.

    -This places him in UA’s care and presumably the agent in EWR figured it was his job to turn him over to the corresponding UM agent on the connecting airline.

    -UA agent turned him over to the wrong airline and that airline only has a single flight/destination out of Newark so they put him on it.

  33. With respect Kelly Berg, people are theorising because there was the lack of information that you have since provided. Your Mom was understandably frantic, but the rest of the story dropped off her Twitter feed (understandable as well, child safe was the priority).

    It appears United got the child to the next airline, he was accepted by SAS and placed into a holding area for unaccompanied minors. It sounds like United followed through on bringing him to the next airline as an exception as stated in Raleigh.

    Sounds like he was given an incorrect boarding pass by SAS. Do SAS and Eurowings share a check in area? They both use the same terminal. SAS agent reached for wrong boarding pass?

    After that, you are right. Your brother was moved quickly and he appears to have done all the right things in the rush that continued.

    It sounds like SAS dropped the ball at booking (IF they were told he was a child which would trigger checking United policy). United addressed it by offering a waiver and escort to the next airline for aceptance and this was accepted by his Mom through payment of the standard United fee. It also apears to be a SAS check in error (wrong boarding pass and document check whan accepting from United) or whatever airline accepted his care in Newark, likely SAS. Eurowings accepted his incorrect boarding pass visually but did not scan it.

    This will be a story for your brother. I am sure in time all will be able to laugh at this.

  34. An airline can offer a paid unaccompanied minor service without mandating it for all minors in some age for a given route.

    I don’t know what went down in this situation, but Eurowings shouldn’t have boarded any regular passenger onto the plane to Germany unless the passenger was ticketed for the flight (or maybe had a sort of flight interruption manifest fix) and became a listed passenger on the plane and had a boarding pass for the Eurowings flight.

    When I was 14 years old, I would have felt safer traveling internationally by air than if taking the subway and train during the day to travel domestically or even just locally. And now in this age where even most third grade students — at least in this UAM passenger’s destination country — has a smartphone and knows how to connect to public WiFi networks, I would expect that it’s even easier now than it used to be to be an UAM.

  35. Reading the claimed reports by the sister, the main mess ups seem to be from Eurowings and whomever was providing the UAM service at EWR.

  36. United messed up big time here. Eurowings should send the disruption bill to United. 😉

  37. Well said, Pedro and Lufthaven…more to the story, as per usual. Not to mention…parental responsibility. Would not send a minor on his, or her own overseas, esp in today’s world. BTW, foreign exchange student/study abroad programs usually incl adult chaperones. Hundreds of thousands of passengers traveling, boarding flights daily…mistakes are made. Demand for cheap airfares drive short-staffing, inadequate training.

  38. GuWonder said: “When I was 14 years old, I would have felt safer traveling internationally by air than if taking the subway and train during the day to travel domestically or even just locally.” Actually interesting point. 14 year old teens travel the subway from all over New York City to Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, every day during the school year. Personally, I think the airports are safer than the subway. Just saying.

  39. My son has flown unmin from the UK (LBA or MAN) to the US and back since he was 11. He was very comfortable doing so. Since he turned 16, there is no UnMin requirement anymore. He flew UA through ORD once when he was not yet 16 (I believe 14), and UA had weather related delays out of CLT (where we live), and so his connection to MAN in ORD was going to be tight. UA did not provide any assurances as to what would happen if my 14 year old would miss his connection. Overnight by himself? Hotel? Transfer to and from there? Etc. I also tried to call and got nothing back. So I fired up the Twitter and that, in the end, provided information, and he (just) made the connection in ORD.

    Mind you, this was from UAL Express to US “proper” as they (and AA) are clear that UnMin’s can not transfer to another airline, even if it is within the same alliance.

  40. United does not accept unaccompanied minors on connecting flights let alone a connection with another airline!

  41. Let’s start at the very beginning: whose kid is this and why is he traveling overseas by himself?

    Quit handing off your parental responsibility

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