American Airlines is apologizing to parents who say the carrier didn’t notify them when the cross-country flight carrying their special-needs, unaccompanied minor children home from summer camp was delayed overnight on Friday.
Nine children were returning to the Portland, Oregon, area from Camp New Friends in Charlottesville, Virginia, which welcomes kids with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition in which tumors develop in the brain, spinal cord, nerves and skin.
When their flight was canceled, the kids – one just 8 years old – had to spend the night in the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In a statement to USA TODAY, American spokesman Ross Feinstein said, “Unfortunately, after boarding Flight 1736 from Charlotte to Portland on Friday, the flight experienced a mechanical delay that caused it to remain in Charlotte overnight. The children were kept in our dedicated unaccompanied minor room where they were kept safe and comfortable in the care of American Airlines personnel at all times. They departed to Portland on Saturday morning.”
A group of parents say American Airlines failed to inform them that their special-needs kids' plane was delayed 13 hours overnight on the other side of the country. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP/Getty Images)
But the families take issue with American’s claim that the kids were kept comfortable and supervised at all times.
‘We need real food to be able to take our medication’
They say that after sitting on the plane for five hours, the children spent the rest of the night in a room at the airport, where their parents say they were not properly looked after. Among their complaints: They were given few bathroom breaks, were unable to charge their phones and could not take medications to fend off seizures and migraines at the prescribed times because they hadn’t been fed since breakfast.
“The only thing we had were crackers and soda,” 14-year-old Kelley Phillips told Portland TV station KATU. “And that’s not good because we need real food to be able to take our medication.”
The kids packed their prescriptions in their carry-on luggage so they’d have easy access to it, but Phillips said some in the group were told their bags had to be gate-checked because they didn’t meet size restrictions.
“So we’ve got these kids who need to take medicine, but they’re unable to because it’s on their carry-on and it’s under the plane and they wouldn’t go get us them,” she said, adding that one such kid “could end up having a seizure if he gets overstressed. His seizure medication was on one of the carry-ons we had to put under the plane, so we tried to keep him calm.”
Phillips told told Portland NBC affiliate KGW-8 that she stepped up to lead the other kids because the airline’s level of supervision was inconsistent. For instance, while the other passengers deplaned, the campers were left alone with only the cleaning crew to watch them.
She also faulted crew members for not knowing their own policy regarding their responsibility to unaccompanied minors.
“The flight attendant just kept trying to make excuses like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what’s going on. It’s not really up to me what goes on,’ ” Phillips told KGW-8. “She was one of the people who was supposed to be watching over us and was supposed to know what she was doing.”
How much supervision does $322 buy?
There appeared to be a disconnect between the level of supervision the parents expected and what the airline agreed to provide in exchange for its $322 unaccompanied minor fee paid for each child.
American states on its website that it cannot provide “continuous” supervision of unaccompanied minors during flight. It only promises to “ensure your child is boarded onto the aircraft, introduced to the flight attendant, chaperoned during connections and released to the appropriate person at their destination.”
The policy also states that in the event of a cancellation, delay or scheduling irregularity, the airline will call the contacts listed on the child’s paperwork and arrange an alternate flight if necessary.
“Not one parent was contacted by the airline,” Kristie Hoyt of Beaverton, Oregon, told KATU. “The only contact was me calling a 12-year old and having her hand the phone over to the flight attendant,” she said.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Hoyt said that when she called the airline, they gave her a number of reasons for the delay but refused to provide her with a dedicated contact person who could give updates on her son, Hudson, and the other kids throughout their separation.
While she waited for news, she lined up interview after interview and posted updates on Facebook.
The chaos didn’t end when the flight finally left Charlotte at 8:43 a.m. Saturday morning, nearly 13 hours late. By then, Hoyt said, the kids had gone 24 hours without a proper meal. And her joyful airport reunion with Hudson was tempered by an American Airlines staffer who asked her to sign for a child that wasn’t hers.
American has vowed to do better in the future, with Feinstein telling USA TODAY, “Our team is in the process of reaching out to the families involved and sincerely apologizes for this travel experience. We will be reviewing with our teams internally to understand how we can do better next time.”
Hoyt demanded a plan of action, telling KATU, “I want to know how they’re going to fix this so no other child or parent has to go through this.”
But American may not get a second chance, at least with these families.
Karinsa Holmes-Solo, whose Dino Doozer Foundation funded the campers’ trip, told USA TODAY that her group is convening a board meeting to determine its response and whether it will ever allow campers to fly American again.
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