Tom Culo wants us to pursue United Airlines for holding his 10-year-old son without his consent for an extended period of time on board a plane. United says things didn’t go down that way. And when our advocates reviewed Culo’s paper trail, they decided not to get involved.
We don’t normally make the decision to dismiss a case without contacting the company. But Culo’s problem raised not only our eyebrows but also the hair on the backs of our necks.
For one thing, Culo indicates in his request document that the value of his claim is $1 million. No, that’s not a typo. And not only does his version of events completely differ from United’s, it just doesn’t make sense to us, both in our capacities as consumer advocates and in general. Finally, his paper trail shows him to have behaved in an angry, confrontational manner. Our advocates don’t believe that he would be satisfied by any assistance they could provide.
Let’s first hear Culo’s side.
“My child was held on board,” Culo’s says in his complaint to us. “United Airlines staff refused to release him back to me or let me board the plane with a valid boarding pass. After the event, they misinterpreted the facts, tried to conceal the evidence, and even denied that the event happened, in spite of the irrefutable evidence including documents, photos, and a recording of the event.”
So what exactly did happen to Culo’s son? Culo claims that his son Andre was allowed to board the plane but he was not, despite holding a boarding pass that had been issued a few minutes before. Several members of the staff asked him to give up his seat. Culo then asked that the staff remove Andre from the plane, but the staff refused and threatened to call the police. After lengthy confrontations with United’s manager and gate agents, during which time Andre was “being held against his will,” United’s agents and crew finally released Andre and he was returned to his father.
Culo also claims that he was unable to give up his seat because although he had paid for United’s unaccompanied minor service, it was not appearing in his reservation and United’s staff refused to provide it.
A United corporate customer care agent responded to Culo’s complaint three months later by apologizing for her delay in responding, and then explaining that she needed to see United Airlines’ internal report of the incident. She noted that “their account … and your [sic] differs quite greatly” and “that Andrest [sic] was able to travel the following day.”
Here are excerpts from Culo’s response to the United corporate customer care agent:
Firstly, do I understand correctly that you are disputing the fact that the gate staff detained my child? Are you disputing anything else I mentioned in my complaint?…
Secondly, will you or will you not apologize for detaining my child, for not letting me board the plane, and for the abusive behavior of your staff?
Thirdly, please take some time to study the spelling of my son’s name. That will go a long way in making me believe that you put the due care in properly addressing this case.
The agent replied:
Please know our staff did not “hold” your child. You sent your child on board without you accompanying him. You did not notify the gate agent that your son was on board until the flight was closing out.
You were requested to board the plane and declined. At that time you notified the gate agent your minor son was on board.
I apologize for the misinterpretation of your sons [sic] name as it does appear on the reservation as: Culo/Andrestjepan
Culo responded by accusing United’s staff of refusing to provide unaccompanied minor service, claiming “That indisputably indicates that I asked for the unaccompanied minor service prior to my son’s boarding. Therefore, the boarding agents knew ahead of the time that my son was ten years old, and that he cannot fly alone.” He added that “it appears that the boarding staff is concealing the truth.”
Here are excerpts from the agent’s response to Culo:
Inquiry was made regarding unaccompanied minor service, however you were advised we do not interline minors, and as such the process was not started or documented in his record. …
The agent processing the boarding would not have been made aware of your son’s status. … If he was boarding as an unaccompanied minor, he would have then been boarded with an agent who would assist him. However that would not again, have been permitted for this flight, as we do not interline minors or allow connecting flights.
As per the agent …, you were requested to board, and refused, hence your seat was reassigned. You offered your ticket to the agent, hoping to be compensated if the flight was oversold. However it was not, and the agent reissued your boarding pass.
Once you informed the staff that your son was on board, he was disembarked. As you were traveling on separate records we would not be aware you were traveling together.
Again, we were not made aware by you, that he was boarding alone. Children who are boarded as unaccompanied minors (fee required) are escorted to the plane and then presented to the on board staff. They are also provided with documents and usually a wristband to wear that identifies them. This is done at check in prior to going through security.
As you were denied or declined to travel that day, and it was imperative the flight depart, the offer was to reissue your tickets for travel on the next day.
Unfortunately, I am very disappointed with your response. Among the other inconsistencies in the fictitious version of the events that your boarding agents are proposing, and you seem to accept:
It is impossible that that the United Airlines boarding agents confused a 10-year-old child for an adult, particularly right after his parent asked for the unaccompanied minor service for that very child, and after the boarding staff checked the child’s documents.
You are disputing that the boarding agents refused to return the child, in spite of the existence of irrefutable evidence, including a recording of a part of the argument with the boarding agents.
In addition, you seem to be accusing me of not telling the truth.
I refuse to be mistreated any further, and kindly ask you for one last time that you please take this case seriously. I suggest you consider all the evidence, including the email messages I already sent you, and actually investigate the case.
Furthermore, please escalate this case to your supervisor. Also, please note that if you do not address this issue promptly, I will have no other choice but to pursue this case by other legal means.
The agent responded by reiterating United’s position that Culo’s son was not documented as an unaccompanied minor, United was unable to provide its unaccompanied minor service for the flight, and that once it was determined that Culo’s son was traveling without adult supervision, he was removed from the flight and reunited with Culo.
Culo answered: “I am dismayed with your callousness, as well as the lengths you are prepared to go misinterpreting the facts in order to avoid addressing the issue.”
At this point Culo sent his request for help to our advocacy team. (Executive contact information for United Airlines can be found on our website.)
Our advocates agreed to suggest to Culo that he post about his case in our forums. As of this writing, however, nothing has been posted in the forums about Culo’s case.
As our advocates pointed out in their case notes:
Based on the paper trail, they both had tickets for this flight. For some reason the father didn’t want to fly, but wanted to send his son as an unaccompanied minor, but was denied. At the gate, he turned his boarding pass hoping to volunteer for overbooking (but not his son’s), then allowed his ten-year-old son to board the aircraft. When he wasn’t selected to be bumped, he then refused to board and demand his son be deplaned. Sounds much like he never intended to fly with his son.
He is very confrontational in his correspondence, plus if someone was detaining my son, I would have called the airport police rather than argue!
Assuming Culo really did want to fly with his son, he should have booked them as traveling together. Otherwise, he should have requested unaccompanied minor service for his son at the time he booked his son’s flight. And as we’ve noted in many previous stories, making accusations and threats against a company is never an appropriate way to ask that company for help or redress.
Whatever the true facts of the case are, we don’t believe Culo has given us a complete and accurate story, and we’re turned off by the hostility and threats in his correspondence with United. We consider his story a Case Dismissed.