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(MIAMI) — A Georgia mom is speaking out after she said her 12-year-old daughter, who was traveling solo as an unaccompanied minor, exited an American Airlines flight at a Miami airport by herself after landing — without an adult guide.
The family paid extra for the unaccompanied minors service. According to the airline’s unaccompanied minors travel policy, the service assigns airport escorts to help children deplane, make flight connections, and meet the authorized adult picking them up.
Monica Gilliam told “Good Morning America” that on July 2, her daughter Kimber flew on an American Airlines flight from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Miami, Florida, to visit her father. After Kimber’s flight landed, Gilliam said she received a distressing phone call from American Airlines.
“The manager from American Airlines called and said, ‘Your child is missing.’ I was like, ‘How did you lose my child? How do you lose an unaccompanied minor?'” Gilliam recalled.
Gilliam said her daughter — who had flown unaccompanied before when she was 5 and 6, with different airlines — told her she felt she had to get up and leave the aircraft once it landed, following other passengers who were disembarking, and claimed a flight attendant even waved goodbye to her.
“She was seated in between two people on row eight. And when the person at the window got up, she felt like she was supposed to get up, too, and move into the aisle,” she said. “And then they just waved her on and she said, I didn’t know what to do, so I kept walking.'”
The family had not gone over specifics with Kimber about what to expect in the unaccompanied travel process, or detailed safety instructions on flying alone, but said she was familiar with air travel in general — according to Gilliam, the family flies together frequently, “and so [Kimber] knows that our typical protocol is that we get off the plane and we go to baggage claim together” — and had been told she would be looked after on this flight.
“I told her when she got on at Chattanooga that they would be there with her and they would make sure she stayed safe until she reached her dad,” she said.
“You know, she’s flown unaccompanied before. I have other children that have, too. And it never crossed our minds that this could be a possibility,” she added.
Gilliam said Kimber’s father ultimately used FaceTime to help his daughter navigate the Miami airport by herself after she had disembarked the plane, and eventually was able to guide her to a baggage claim area where he could reunite with her.
“She was nervous and she was scared. But she did exactly what her dad told her to do to get her to safety,” she said.
Gilliam said that airline officials had since refunded the full ticket price and additional unaccompanied minor fees for the trip, and had offered her several free flights with American Airlines, along with a number of other VIP services, which she said she turned down.
“They were very apologetic,” she said. Still, she added, “[Kimber] doesn’t want to fly now. … So I’ll be driving down to get her after her visit is over with her dad.”
American Airlines says children between the ages of 5 and 14 are required to use the company’s unaccompanied minor service when they fly alone. The service includes early boarding and an airport escort is supposed to meet the child and take them to their gate, flight connection, or to an “authorized adult” or guardian who has to pick up the child after a flight lands, according to the airline’s website.
Additionally, the website states that there is a “$150 unaccompanied service fee (plus tax, where applicable) each way” added to the ticket price for those using the service.
In response to the incident, American Airlines told ABC News in a statement that the company “cares deeply” about its young passengers and is “committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them.” The airline added that it is “looking into what occurred” and is taking the incident “very seriously.”
Emily Kaufman, a travel expert and the CEO and founder of “The Travel Mom,” told “GMA” that parents with children flying solo need to make sure their kids are adequately prepared.
“Inform them about the plan on the plane, getting off the plane and when they’re in need of something that they can ask a flight attendant,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman also recommends parents give their child a list of important contacts and phone numbers and to put the list in their pocket as well as their carry-on luggage. Parents may also want to consider using a tracking tool like the “Find My Friends” feature on an iPhone and they should always monitor a child’s flight in case it arrives early or late.
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