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Sky High Switcharoo

Posted 01/10/2024 by Merry Shukert

When minors wind up hundreds of miles away from their intended destination, panic sets in and airline employees receive intense criticism for the mishap. photo by Yaroslav Astakhov

Two unaccompanied minors boarded the wrong flights during the 2023 holiday rush season, ending up with an impromptu vacation.

In what seems like the real life version of the 1990 Christmas film Home Alone, not one, but two unaccompanied minors were accidentally placed on the wrong flights during the holiday season travel rush. A six-year-old in Philadelphia was put alone on a flight to Orlando on December 21st instead of the flight he was supposed to board, which was bound for Fort Myers, Florida. The very next day, a 16-year-old boy in Tampa, Florida, was put on a flight headed for Puerto Rico instead of his ticketed flight to Cleveland, Ohio. 

Regarding the latter, Frontier Airlines had allegedly not scanned his ticket, allowing him to board the incorrect flight. According to social media news outlet Pubity, the flight to San Juan departed ahead of the Cleveland flight but from the same gate, and the 16-year-old unintentionally boarded the flight bound for Puerto Rico, heading nearly 2,000 miles in the opposite direction. He claimed that, upon asking for help, nobody checked his ticket. In cases such as this one, passengers may accidentally board the wrong flight if there is confusion or lack of clarity regarding boarding announcements or procedures. As stated by CNN, “Frontier Airlines promptly flew [the child] back to Tampa on the same aircraft and arranged a flight to Cleveland the next day,” in addition to extending sincere apologies to his family for the error. 

According to USA Today, Frontier allows kids 15 and older to travel by themselves and does not support a program for unaccompanied minors that offers escorts for children. Despite this, the U.S. Department of Transportation still insists that airlines “have specific procedures to protect the well-being of youngsters flying by themselves.” Just last year, another American Frontier passenger boarded the wrong flight to Jamaica without a passport, although aviation experts have indicated that those kinds of international incidents are rare.

The minor bound for Fort Myers represents an entirely different issue, considering his age; at six years old, it can be argued that he should have been supervised by an employee of Spirit Airlines the entire time he was traveling. His grandmother, Maria Ramos, explained that, after the plane he was supposed to be on landed and her grandson wasn’t on it, panic set in. She got a call from her grandson after he landed in Orlando, and they made the drive of nearly 160 miles from Fort Myers to pick him up. “The child was always under the care and supervision of a Spirit Team Member, and as soon as we discovered the error we took immediate steps to communicate with the family and reconnect them,” the airline said in a statement to CNN. The ticketing agent who made the critical blunder has since been fired.

How do these mishaps happen? How does one even manage to scan a ticket to one destination and get on a flight to another? Standard procedures are put in place throughout airports around the world, from security, to trams, to gates and ticket scanning, they ensure that everybody who paid for a ticket gets on the correct plane to the correct destination. Most of the time, these processes function flawlessly, as gate agents and airline staff are trained to follow specific procedures, especially regarding children. Despite these meticulous measures, however, incidents can still happen, especially during a holiday travel rush, when the number of commuters skyrockets. 

Though neither Spirit nor Frontier Airlines actually explained how the boarding mistakes happened, potential faults in scanning boarding passes, verifying passengers’ identities, or miscommunication among staff are all likely culprits. Technical issues with scanning machines or computers can also make it difficult to verify passengers’ information. Additionally, the complexity of air travel – especially during the busy holiday season – can aggravate these challenges as the amount of passengers and flights increases drastically, placing additional pressure on airline staff.

In the 1992 film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Kevin McCallister, a 10-year-old, mistakenly boarded a plane bound for New York City as the rest of his family ended up on their scheduled flight to Florida. Similar to the movie’s plot, these incidents can cause immense stress and concern for both passengers and their families. While they may be rare occurrences, these coordination mishaps emphasize the importance of all safety protocols utilized within the airline industry. By learning from these experiences and making changes where needed, airlines can ensure the trust and confidence of their passengers while also prioritizing their safety.