Help! United left my 13-year-old daughter in Syracuse

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By Christopher Elliott

What does United Airlines’ unaccompanied minor fee cover? Katrina Cichosz wants to know, and after reviewing her case, I’m kind of curious, too.

Let’s go right to the textbook definition, which is on United’s website. When her 13-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, flew home for Thanksgiving on Nov. 21, she had the option of paying the $99 fee to cover “the extra handling required” for managing a child’s travel, but technically, she didn’t have to.

She was scheduled to fly on United flight 4799 from Syracuse, NY, to Cleveland, which is scheduled to depart at 6:05 a.m. The night before, her daughter and her daughter’s father received a notification that the flight would be delayed by two hours. They still arrived at the airport with plenty of time to board the flight for its original departure, getting to the airport at 4:20 a.m.

Now, you have to remember — it’s Nov. 21, which is one of the busiest air travel days of the year. The terminal was crowded. Father and daughter stood in a long line to check in and then paid the $99 UM fee.

At 5:50 a.m., just after they had passed through security, they heard their names being paged.

They ran to the gate and reached it within that same minute. When they arrived at the gate, a United employee told them they had missed boarding by four minutes.

The plane door was still open and the walkway was still at the plane’s door. My daughter was crying and the employee still wouldn’t let her on and told them to wait to be helped for another flight.

Turns out the aircraft wasn’t delayed, and even though the family arrived on time, they still missed their boarding because of the long lines. Oh, and one other thing: Their flight was completely full, and when her daughter didn’t show up for boarding, United gave her seat to a standby passenger. (Here’s what to do if your flight gets delayed or canceled.)

Gabrielle caught a flight the next day, for which United didn’t charge her, but Cichosz is unhappy. She paid $1,600 for the ticket, plus an additional $99, to get her daughter home for Thanksgiving. Instead, she spent the better part of the day on the phone with United, trying to get her daughter home. If her father didn’t live nearby, Gabrielle would have truly been stranded in Syracuse.

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She wonders,

Why was her seat given away to a standby person, when the UM fee had been paid that morning and she was checked in at the ticket counter? Didn’t that mean she was in the airport? I’m having a hard time understanding how United can give an UM seat away like that?

She put the question to United in writing.

Here’s what it said

We appreciate your valuable feedback regarding your daughter’s recent experience. We are sorry you felt that the situation was not handled properly by our airport agents and will forward this issue along with your comments to management for further review.

We apologize for the inconvenience and frustration this situation may have caused you and your daughter and regret any poor impression created. Your comments will help us in future policies, procedures and protocols to create an airline receptive to your needs.

While we empathize with your concerns regarding your daughter’s experience, United agents must follow certain guidelines and timetables regarding flight boarding. Passengers, even if shown as checked in, are required to be at the gate at least 10 to 15 minutes before the scheduled flight time.

Not being present at the gate during boarding may cause that person’s seat, regardless of being a minor or Premier frequent flier member, to be given away. Also, if the plane has been boarded and the passenger manifest submitted for security review to various government entities such as TSA, no further boardings or additions are allowed, regardless of whether or not the plane is still at the gate or even if the door or walkway is still open.

As a “gesture of goodwill,” United offered Gabrielle a $150 flight voucher.

Cichosz isn’t impressed with that response, and wonders if United can offer a better explanation and more compensation for her daughter’s delay. If that had been my daughter, I would definitely feel as if United’s pro forma apology didn’t fully address the question. It also fails to tell her why a flight that was supposed to be delayed two hours could depart on time without any notification.

She wants to know if I can mediate this case with United, and while I think she’s entitled to a better answer, I’m not sure if the outcome — a $150 voucher and a cookie-cutter apology — would improve. I’m willing to try. (Who’s responsible for unaccompanied minors on a flight?)

Should I mediate Katrina Cichosz's case with United?

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Update (10:50 a.m.): I’ve updated the headline to reflect that the passenger wasn’t abandoned in Syracuse. I’ve also heard from United, which says that it appears the passenger was late getting to the gate, and if that’s the case, it would be the end of the story. I’ll see what I can find out.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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