- Airlines ‘frequently’ lose unaccompanied children amid disruption, a former flight attendant says.
- Shelly-Ann Cawley quit her job after witnessing vulnerable passengers being left uncared for.
- She says it’s not safe for children to travel alone as they too often become a second priority.
Thousands of travelers have had their flights canceled, delayed and their luggage lost partly because of staff shortages amid this summer’s travel chaos. In some instances, children are suffering the consequences as a result of the pandemonium.
American Airlines lost a 12-year-old child traveling alone at Miami airport last month and shut down the terminal to find her. In the same month, the airline canceled a 10-year-old’s flight but failed to inform her parents.
A former flight attendant, who has more than 20 years of experience in the industry, told Insider it is “very common” for unaccompanied children to go missing or be left uncared for.
“Airlines try to minimize and cover it up but it happens pretty frequently and I’ve seen it across all airlines,” Shelly-Ann Cawley says.
“It happens more than people think or know. At this point of time and during the pandemic when there are irregular operations, the child becomes a second priority.”
Cawley, who has worked for five airlines, says it’s not entirely safe for children to fly alone as there have been so many bad situations that have gone unreported. Most airlines outsource care of unaccompanied minors to agency workers, which she says can cause issues.
“It happens all the time because of misinformation and a breakdown in communication. If they don’t have access to the system the airline is using, staff go off of what someone has said.”
After witnessing issues with unaccompanied minors and vulnerable passengers throughout her career, Cawley decided to set up her own company, Travelers Care, three years ago to help them travel safely.
She had a bad experience when her mother was traveling alone from Jamaica back to the US. She needed to use the restroom but there was no one there to assist her.
In another situation, a passenger was dropped off at the airport but appeared to have Alzheimer’s and was just left at the airport and expected to be able to travel alone. “That was the last straw for me, so I quit my job and started Travelers Care and began flying with vulnerable passengers myself,” Cawley said.
The way the service works is like a passenger is flying with a loved one as they purchase an additional ticket for a companion and pay for their return as well as a fee starting at $275.
Travelers Care will take pictures of the child or vulnerable passenger along the journey and send updates using WiFi. They let their family know when they have eaten to give them peace of mind and keep them informed on every step of the way.
There are several reasons why these incidents occur, Cawley says, with the reason often boiling down to staff deviating from airline policies and procedures in difficult circumstances. “There may not be enough people there to assist, or staff who work long hours and are fatigued tend to make mistakes.”
It can also be as a result of ineffective communication by not documenting or sharing information between agents. This causes confusion and can result in children being let off planes alone or left wandering in baggage reclaim.
Flight attendants may be on their last leg home and mistakenly abandon an unaccompanied minor thinking other staff will be responsible for the handover, Cawley says.
In other scenarios, an older child might take off their lanyard identifying them as an unaccompanied minor so they blend in with other passengers.