- Airlines “often” lose unaccompanied children to disruption, says a former flight attendant.
- Shelly-Ann Cawley quit her job after seeing vulnerable passengers being neglected.
- She says it’s not safe for children to travel alone as they too often come second.
Thousands of travelers have had their flights canceled, delayed and their luggage lost, partly due to staff shortages amid this summer’s travel chaos. In some cases, children suffer from the effects of pandemonium.
American Airlines lost a 12-year-old child traveling alone at Miami Airport last month and closed the terminal to find her. That same month, the airline canceled a 10-year-old’s flight but failed to notify her parents.
A former flight attendant who has more than 20 years of experience in the industry told Insider that unaccompanied children “very often” go missing or are neglected.
“Airlines try to minimize and cover it up, but it’s pretty common and I’ve seen it happen with all airlines,” says Shelly-Ann Cawley.
“More is happening than people think or know. At this point and during the pandemic, when there are irregular surgeries, the child becomes the second priority.”
Cawley, who has worked for five airlines, says it’s not entirely safe for children to fly alone because there have been so many bad situations that have gone unreported. Most airlines outsource the care of unaccompanied minors to temporary workers, which they say can cause problems.
“It happens all the time because of misinformation and communication failures. If they don’t have access to the system that the airline is using, staff will go by what someone said.”
After experiencing issues with unaccompanied minors and vulnerable passengers throughout her career, Cawley decided three years ago to start her own business Travelers Care to help them travel safely.
She had had a bad experience when her mother was traveling back to the US from Jamaica alone. She needed to go to the bathroom but there was no one to help her.
In another situation, a passenger was dropped off at the airport but appeared to have Alzheimer’s and was simply left at the airport expecting to travel alone. “That was the last straw for me, so I quit my job and started Travelers Care and started flying myself with vulnerable passengers,” Cawley said.
The service works as if a passenger were flying with a loved one if they purchase an additional ticket for a companion and pay for the return trip and a fee starting at $275.
Travelers Care takes photos of the child or vulnerable passenger during the journey and sends updates via WiFi. They let their family know when they’ve eaten to give them peace of mind and keep them informed every step of the way.
There are multiple reasons for these incidents, Cawley says, with the reason often stemming from employees deviating from airline policies and procedures in difficult circumstances. “There may not be enough people to help, or employees who work late and are tired tend to make mistakes.”
It can also be the result of ineffective communication, with information not being documented or shared between agents. This creates confusion and can result in children being left alone off planes or lost in baggage claim.
Flight attendants might be on the last leg home and mistakenly abandon an unaccompanied minor because they think other staff will be responsible for the handover, Cawley says.
In other scenarios, an older child could remove their lanyard to identify them as an unaccompanied minor in order to blend in with other passengers.