Gianpiera Borroni thought her $150 unaccompanied minor fee would guarantee someone from Delta would look after her child. She thought wrong.

Borroni trusted the airline to supervise her 12-year-old daughter, who had traveled solo on nonstop international flights in the past. Borroni was sending her daughter to Argentina, but this was the first time she would travel alone on an itinerary with a connection.

You know what they say about the best laid plans.

The flight from Baltimore to Atlanta got off the ground, but encountered bad weather en route and diverted to Columbia, S.C. Borroni was tracking the flight online, and when she saw that the flight path had changed, she called Delta. The wait time to speak to a representative was more than an hour. Once on the ground in Columbia, her daughter called home using a borrowed cell phone from another passenger — because the flight attendant had left her all alone.

Airlines collect millions in unaccompanied minor fees every year, but they often give passengers little or nothing in return. A 12-year-old traveling alone must participate in Delta’s unaccompanied minor program, which, in exchange for a fee, aims to “ensure a safe, secure and uneventful flight.” The program language on Delta’s website specifically states: “If there is a change to your child’s itinerary en route, an agent will contact you.”

Of course, that didn’t happen for Borroni. Her daughter called home and said she was alone. Borroni couldn’t get through to a Delta agent in Columbia. Once Borroni spoke with her daughter, her concern shifted to her child’s itinerary, and whether her daughter would still successfully make the connection to her international flight in Atlanta.

After endless phone calls, Borroni was finally able to speak to an agent on the ground in Columbia. The agent told Borroni that if her daughter missed her connection, Delta would put her in a hotel.

“I am sure that if an adult missed a connection, a hotel would be the best option — but not for a minor,” Borroni writes. “I was extremely frustrated at my inability to advocate for my daughter and talk to a flight attendant. I trusted the airline and the unaccompanied minor service, but then I was told that my 12-year-old would end up in a hotel.”

For anyone who might say that a 12-year-old who can fly to Argentina is surely old enough to stay in a hotel alone, you’re wrong. A lot of bad things can happen to unaccompanied children, and that’s precisely why parents pay the airline to protect children in their care.

In Borroni’s case, her daughter’s flight made it to Atlanta that night, but she missed her connection. Instead of staying the night in a hotel, Borroni’s daughter spent the next 24 hours in Delta’s SkyZone, an airport lounge staffed by Delta employees for unaccompanied children, which provides complimentary phones to contact parents, as well as books, TV, games and toys. Presumably Delta provided a cot so she could sleep overnight in the lounge and relax until it was time to board her flight the following evening.

Borroni says that Delta promised it would upgrade her daughter to business class on the next leg of her journey, but that didn’t happen. Delta only offered her a voucher, which Borroni says is meaningless, because she won’t have the opportunity to use it.

Borroni complains that Delta failed in carrying out the specific duties it purports to undertake when it accepts the one-way $150 unaccompanied minor fee. When the child’s itinerary changed, Delta in fact did nothing, providing no service for her fee. Despite requiring parent contact information, agents never called Borroni to tell her about the change in itinerary or the plan to stay overnight in the SkyZone. She wants to know why Delta can’t keep its promises.

Delta seems to be forgetting that unaccompanied minors and their parents are people. According to Delta’s website, Delta has implemented barcoded wristbands that the airline scans “at important points of our Unaccompanied Minor’s journey.” It appears Delta has modeled its unaccompanied minor program after its checked luggage program — you pay the fee, we scan a barcode. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Air travel is never a sure thing. But Delta’s program makes promises. Safety. Information. Communication. Transparency. All of these promises were broken for Borroni.

Our advocacy team doesn’t know how to make this right. Like a missing bag that eventually turns up unharmed, many people will feel the same about this child — no harm, no foul. Perhaps the mom shouldn’t expect anything more from an airline. However children are not suitcases, and the treatment of luggage and children should be very different, with the latter getting the highest priority of attention from airline employees.

Until her child arrived safely at her destination, Borroni experienced a great deal of stress and frustration over the incident. We don’t know what would make the situation right, because this appears to be part of a much larger airline trend toward increased fees and diminished service. Are we wrong to expect a company to keep its word?

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