LIHUE — Hawaiian Airlines apologized and issued refunds and travel vouchers to a family after losing track of their 7-year-old child in a busy airport terminal.
When Teeana Valpoon arrived at Hilo International Airport last October to pick up her son who had just flown in from Kauai, she found the boy crying on the curb next to a security guard, who told her he had found the boy sitting alone in the terminal, lost and in tears.
A family member handed the child off to Hawaiian Airlines employees at the Lihue Airport on Kauai earlier that day, paying an additional $70 for the airline’s “unaccompanied minor service” — Hawaiian Airlines charges $35 per flight segment to ensure the safety and supervision of passengers ages 5 to 11 who are traveling alone.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesperson Alex Da Silva said the boy was lost for about two minutes before he was returned to the baggage claim attendant by a security guard. But according to Valpoon, her son must have been missing for longer than a couple minutes, and airline attendants had no idea where he was when she arrived at the airport to pick him up.
Valpoon brought her hysterical son to the Hawaiian Airlines counter in the baggage claim area and said that upon seeing the missing child, the attendant exclaimed, “Oh, there you are!”
Instead of apologizing and taking responsibility for losing her child, the attendant placed the blame on the boy, claiming he ran away from the airline flight attendant, according to Valpoon.
“She totally made it like it was his fault,” Valpoon said.
Da Silva said the flight attendant who was placed in charge of Valpoon’s son reported the child wandered away as they got off the plane and entered the busy terminal. But Valpoon insists her son gave an entirely different account, telling her, “I don’t know, mom. I turned around and I couldn’t find her.”
The Hawaiian Airlines website promises that child passengers flying alone will be taken care of “from the time they board our aircraft until we hand them off to the adult you designate at the end of their journey,” but Valpoon now wonders what the unaccompanied minor fee was for in the first place.
“What service does that $70 include?” she asked. Then, speculating rhetorically about how long airline officials might have allowed her child to go unaccounted for, she asked, “What if I had just picked him up and not signed the paper? Would they have called me?”
When she got back home from the airport, Valpoon called and related the story to her mother, Leah Matsushima, who said she did not take the news well.
“I was furious,” Matsushima said. “I want to know what happened.”
Matsushima called the customer service phone number for Hawaiian Airlines and left messages “every day for almost a week” after the incident, but was never able to reach a real person, and her calls were not returned.
Da Silva said the airline’s policy is to communicate with the ticket-buyer regarding any customer complaints, and said Matsushima’s calls may not have been returned because her name was not on the receipt. He also said Hawaiian Airlines refunded the $70 fee to the family member who purchased the ticket soon after the incident occurred.
But according to Matsushima and Valpoon, the unaccompanied minor fee was only a small part of the problem caused when the airline lost their loved one.
Afraid to fly alone
Before the incident in October, Valpoon said her son regularly flew from Kauai to the Big Island by himself, accompanied by an airline employee. Now she says her child is traumatized and has since refused to get back on a plane without a family member by his side, a situation that presents a unique difficulty for their family — the child’s parents share custody and live on separate islands.
The boy had previously spent most of his time under the care of his grandmother on Kauai, where his father also lives, and made frequent trips to the Big Island to visit his mother. Now that he is unable to fly alone, Matsushima said her grandson can only make the trip if a family member goes with him, an extra step that has proven both time-consuming and cost-prohibitive for the family.
The only solution, according to Matsushima and Valpoon, was to move the child permanently to Hawaii Island so he wouldn’t be separated from his mother for long periods of time. He has had to change schools and leave his home and friends on Kauai.
“This totally disrupted our lives,” Matsushima said, explaining her frustration in a recent interview. “Something has to be done.”
Four months after the incident, Matsushima was finally contacted by a Hawaiian Airlines representative. Following repeated inquiries by TGI into the matter over the course of the last several days, the airline issued a refund for the child’s ticket and gave Valpoon and her son each a $300 travel certificate.
Da Silva sent the following statement via email: “It’s unacceptable for a minor under our care to be separated from us for any period of time, and we accept responsibility when we fail to deliver on our service standards.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.