When Phoebe Klebahn’s parents sent her thousand of miles to summer camp, they paid United Airlines an extra fee of $99 to make sure she got there safely. So when her mom got a call from a frantic counselor saying that Phoebe had failed to arrive on her scheduled flight, Annie Klebahn imagined the worst for her daughter.
Ten-year-old Phoebe was headed for a summer camp in Traverse City, Mich., when she boarded her flight from San Francisco in June. But she failed to make her connection in Chicago because the person hired to help her make the plane change — a United contractor — never showed up.
After getting the call from the camp counselor, Annie Klebahn called United, who insisted her daughter was already in Michigan. “So at that point is when I really knew that they had lost her at some level; they didn’t know where she was,” Klebahn told NBC News. “All the worst possible things go through your mind as a mom when you think you have no idea where your child is and she’s 2,000 miles away.”
Phoebe said a United employee eventually walked her to a waiting room for unaccompanied minors.
“I asked several times to call my mom because I knew she’d be worried because no one really knew where I was,” Phoebe said. “But they kept saying, ‘Hang out a minute, we’re busy.’”
Her parents, meanwhile, spent nearly an hour on the phone before they could reach a United employee at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“She came back and said, 'Actually, I can’t sort it out and I’m going off my shift,’” Annie Klebahn said. “My husband asked her if she was a mother and she said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And he said, ‘How would you feel if you couldn't find your daughter for 45 minutes?’”
The Klebahns said it took six weeks and prodding by NBC-affiliate KNTV before United finally responded to their complaints with an apology.
“What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers,” United said in a statement. “We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn's account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge. We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.”
NBC News reached out to the company United contracts to escort children traveling alone, but has not received a response.
The Klebahns chose another airline to fly Phoebe back home from camp.