Here’s an unaccompanied minor case we won’t touch

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By | December 18th, 2016

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.”

Related story:   Absurd: your airline ticket costs $60; your baby's ticket is $1,280

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.

Culo responded:

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.

Should we have accepted Tom Culo's case?

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  • AJPeabody

    11 foot pole case. He has threatened legal and wans a million bucks.

  • Kristiana Lee

    He bought their tickets on different records, then volunteered to give up his seat only in case of an overbooked flight, wanted his son to fly alone without the services that come with paying for an unaccompanied minor (and there was a connection right?), then got upset when they refused to do that. I hope I’m wrong but this feels like a setup to sue United.

  • Mike

    Run away. Run far far away.

  • Bill___A

    A good case to stay away from. From what I can read here, he allowed his son to board as an unaccompanied minor, that is not good parenting and he brought trouble upon United.

  • MarkKelling

    There are so many issues with this story it is almost impossible to believe either side of it.

    What I think happened is the ticket for the child was originally purchased with the Unaccompanied Minor (UnAM in United speak) option and dad was going to send the child wherever. Somewhere along the way, the flight was changed, either to a completely different flight with a connection or on a code share both of which the correspondence from United says does not allow for UnAM. Arriving at the airport, dad was informed of the issue so dad bought a last minute ticket to go along with the child which explains them not being on the same record. When they got to the plane, it was oversold and they were bumping people with the last checked in being bumped first so dad was asked to give up his seat. Dad had difficulties getting son off the plane because they were on different records and United wanted to be sure they were releasing the child to the correct person.

    United made some mistakes here, for sure. First in allowing an underage child to board the plane without either a parent or guardian or being noted as an UnAM. I still have difficulty with that actually happening. Second, the check in agent selling dad his ticket when it should’ve been obvious to that person the flight was oversold. Maybe this was done to get the irate dad out of his/her face.

    Could dad have set all this up in an attempt to game the system? Did he expect United to change their rules and let son fly as an UnAM because son was allowed on the plane? Seems a bit of a stretch. But now he is asking for $1 million, so maybe not.

    And yes, once anyone starts talking about legal action, they have gone beyond anything that can be done here. Also, don’t threaten unless you are ready and able to follow through.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Nice explanation of a possible scenario that might reasonably explain the errors on both sides.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    A million bucks? good luck with that !

  • PsyGuy

    I voted you take the case, not because this parent needs a copy of Frozen’s “Let it Go” song, and this hyperbole parent is just so wrong about so many things:
    1) Where does he think his inconvenience is worth anything close to 1 million or anything at all.
    2) I can’t pronounce his child’s name, and it’s not worth learning. My name constantly gets misspelled, and I’ve learned to let it go, let it go.
    What I see is a very busy flight and an irate parent who was temporarily delayed in being united with their child. I don’t see anyone was held against their will.
    You should advocate on behalf of the child who is the real victim in this case, they need your advocacy because there are some inconsistencies, the airline knows how old the child passenger is because the information needs to be in the PNR.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s what every PAX thinks every law suite is worth. Million is just a trendy number.

  • PsyGuy

    In all reality publishing this story probably succeeded in getting the LW what they wanted, which is shaming UA. They weren’t going to give the dad anything, so he shames them. Now all hyperbole parents know UA is stupid, but it’s an airline and we already know UA is stupid.

  • PsyGuy

    I just don’t buy that, because he had the opportunity to do that. He could have let his son fly, he didn’t have to bring it to the gate agents attention. The child was already on the plane and seated and all dad had to do to make that plan happen was keep his mouth shut. When the child lands then he can turn around and say “gotcha”. Now UA has transported a 10 year old across state lines, and the parent can say anything they want about United. Call the FBI UA kidnapped his son. A couple tweets, and the parent would be in a much better situation for a lawsuit.

  • Jeff W.

    It is quite possible that the boarding agent assumed the unaccompanied minor was in fact accompanied — either by the person ahead or behind him in line. Especially if the boarding group number was one of the standard ones — such as 4 or 5. If this was a true UnAM passenger, the child would have likely been boarded earlier in the same grouping as global services, military, and disabled passengers.

  • Kristiana Lee

    If the plane had flown with son but not him, wouldn’t he be in trouble himself for letting a 10-year-old fly without registering the child as an unaccompanied minor? And United wouldnl’t be at fault because he took the son onboard himself and left him there.

  • MarkKelling

    According to the article, dad never got on the plane. “Andre was allowed to board the plane but he was not”

    The unaccompanied minor registration is required at time of ticket purchase for the minor on United.

  • MarkKelling

    Not being there, I don’t know what the people surrounding the child looked like (i.e. did he look like he belonged with them) or even how mature this child appears. But every United flight I have been on in memory the gate agent asks any child that appears to be under 18 to point out who he is flying with before allowing the child on the plane when they approach the gate alone with their boarding pass. And yes, the true UnAMs all board along with the handicapped. They also have large hard to miss red striped white envelops with their documentation inside that goes with them until they get on the plane. No one is boarded as an UnAM without this document.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s not what happened, the child boarded ahead of the parent, the gate agent let an unaccompanied minor board the plane. The parent can then point all the fingers at UA. They had the child’s age in the PNR they boarded the minor without a parent guardian, the plane takes off. The parent can then at that point scream bloody murder that UA kidnapped his son. At that point nothing else matters the kids on the plane, the plane took off, the parent isn’t on the plane. Who would believe anything a soulless airline would say, everyone would just come back to “Why did you let an unaccompanied minor board the aircraft”. That gate agent gets fired, maybe arrested, the airline gets sued, and the parent gets paid off.

    I don’t see how the parent gets in trouble, they just say they did register the child, and UA is covering it up, or is incompetent, negligent, after all they let an unaccompanied minor board the aircraft. UA would have no credibility it would just be the word of an airline that kidnapped a child.

  • Kristiana Lee

    You’re right. I stand corrected.

  • PsyGuy

    In this case that could have potentially been a very costly assumption of the gate agent.

  • PsyGuy

    The gate agent just errored horribly.

  • Bill___A

    The records would have shown that his father was along and had a boarding pass, I expect, so why would it have been flagged?

  • Alan Gore

    We would know a lot more if we just had a chronology of the whole incident. So he books a flight with his son and they are both seated, and then he tries to have his own seat bought back on an oversell while having his son sent as an unaccompanied minor?

  • AAGK

    Interesting headline…

  • AAGK

    Why did the dad send the kid on the plane alone if he was traveling too? I hope the airline bans Culo from its airline. If I’m flying somewhere, I don’t want a delay while I wait for this guy to finish playing airline games. He’s lucky the airline didn’t call the police. He put his young child at risk.

  • AAGK

    This guy inconvenienced himself and maybe all of the pax waiting to takeoff. I vote for a lifetime ban.

  • MarkKelling

    They may have been in line together. The child’s boarding pass was scanned and all is good. Dad’s pass was scanned and it told the game agent he was not allowed on the plane (due to overbooking). Since they were on separate records, the gate agent and the computer did’t know they belonged together. Maybe?

    But I do agree that I don’t want to be around anyone trying to play games scam the system and end up with a good sized pile of money.

  • MarkKelling

    The father and child were on completely separate travel records. No way for anyone to know the two belonged together just by looking at their boarding passes. Might be possible that the ticketing agent who sold the last minute ticket to dad made a note in one of their records, but did anyone even notice?

  • Annie M

    Why would you refer him back to the forums? The guy has no case, wants to sue the airline and what he did makes absolutely no sense. He clearly is in the wrong – what is going to the forums supposed to do?

  • PsyGuy

    I vote he spends a lifetime in hyperbole land.

  • PsyGuy

    Not necessarily. It sounds more like the parent bought one ticket for the child in advance, then found out at the airport that the child was too young to qualify for the unaccompanied minor program so the parent bought a walk up ticket for themselves. To different records and the counter agent didn’t link them or they only attached a note to the PNR and no one at the gate read it. The parent gets flagged at boarding as the flight is oversold.

  • ctporter

    To me it does not read that way at all, it reads more as if he never intended to actually fly, he just wanted to avoid the unaccompanied minor charges and failed. It just seems highly unlikely he would hope to be IDB’s but not his son? wow, this seems more on the parent being utterly at fault here, not the airline! (which is contrary to what I would normally think)

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    I have the impression this was a ” premeditated” situation by Culo. I have the impression he knew where he want the situation to end, and he created the circumstances himself. I would not get involved in this case.

  • Bill___A

    Point taken, thank you.

  • Bill___A

    Point taken, thank you. Still looks like a “father created mess”. I’m agreeing with the lifetime ban guys…

  • SierraRose 49

    Culo stated, “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.” Has Culo shared these documents, photos and a recording of the event with Elliott.org? If so, do they support his case against United?

  • DChamp56

    Only 1 Million?

  • Lindabator

    You CANNOT get UMNR coverage on the connecting interline flights, so dad did NOT do this. And you are inventing a scenario that even the father denies – he bought two tickets, on two confirmation numbers, and his seat was bumped – frankly, was his way of trying to get around the rules, and got caught

  • Lindabator

    except they would have checked in together – duh!

  • C Schwartz

    There are so many problems with the father’s story

    The unaccompanied minor service is available for children 5 to 15 (with a fee) but not on interline tickets (ie connections to another airline). There are legitimate reasons for a parent and child to have two separate reservations (ie parent flying child to camp or to spend extended time with family) but the reservations should be noted.

    The OP says that “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.” So the OP only asked the boarding agent about the unaccompanied minor service not before ticketing? Not when checking in? Not when booking the flight?

    The father claims to have paid for the service, so did he have a receipt with the charge? Why was this issue not addressed when checking in? Why was he only asking at the boarding gate?

    Why did the father not board at the same time as the child? If the child is on the gangway when the father’s boarding pass did not scan, the passenger should have pointed to the child as that they were together. I have seen families stop and wait as there is an issue with a boarding pass not scanning for one member (usually because a pass is folded is crumpled). The family waits for the member to board.

    I wonder if he will go through with the lawsuit, it could be entertaining reading but likely a waste of the court’s time.

    And 1 million dollars?

  • C Schwartz

    If a parent is on a separate reservation a note can be made in both reservations so that the two do not get split — UA has a section about that on their website — the same page where they say service is only available for UA flights and not to other airlines. There are reasons to have separate reservations, parent taking a child to camp and returning home then going later to pick them up.

  • C Schwartz

    Child is the right age for UM service (5-15) I think the interline was the issue — connection to another airline. This info is available on their website. I have to wonder how time the parent spent looking at the info before booking the tickets.

  • PsyGuy

    Some airline on the itinerary didn’t want to do the UM.

  • cscasi

    True. And the minor registration could not be done because of the connecting flight issue and United would not be responsible for that and therefore would not allow the unaccompanied minor registration.

  • cscasi

    But, the child was NOT registered because United refused to do so because of the connecting light issue. As for the child boarding with his ticket, do you think the gate agent checks each individual passenger’s PNR to see what their ages are? Sure, the child’s age was probably noted in the PNR but the gate agent would not go and check that. Some children look older than they are and some younger. This just happens to be a bad case and the father complicated this whole issue by his actions or lack thereof.No way Chris could have advocated for him and United did right to stand by its actions.

  • Michael__K

    do you think the gate agent checks each individual passenger’s PNR to see what their ages are?

    If not, then I would like to think that such red-flags are raised automatically by their computer systems and prevents them from closing the flight.

    Do you think United follows its own written policies?

    Children ages 5-15 (as of the travel date) who travel without a parent, a legal guardian or someone who is at least 18 years old are considered unaccompanied minors and are required to use our unaccompanied minor service.
    https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/specialneeds/minors/default.aspx

  • C Schwartz

    Considering that some airlines will not interline baggage I am not surprised that they will not interline an UM

  • Michael__K

    Which airline has an interline agreement with United (or with any other carrier) that does not include baggage?

  • C Schwartz
  • Michael__K

    That article is about passengers trying to check a bag through an itinerary spanning separate tickets… Not about carriers systematically rejecting baggage from their interline partners…

  • joycexyz

    Totally off the wall. Did he really expect to be taken seriously by the airline and by this forum? And exactly where and what is this evidence he claims to have? Sound like a total scam.

  • joycexyz

    The child may indeed be a victim, but of his father and not the airline. Why book a child on a separate record?

  • CasaAlux

    Y’all know what culo means in Spanish, don’t you? Seems appropriate in this case!

  • AAGK

    Until kid realizes dad abandoned him at 10 years old for an airline discount and tells a flight attendant. The plan was not a slamdunk and any man who would do that to his child, the airline and the other pax is not credible. It’s like bad parents week here.

  • AAGK

    You are right. I see it the same way. Dad had a ticket and child had a ticket. Child boards dad doesn’t. The dad ditched his child on the plane alone. He should’ve been arrested.

  • pauletteb

    Before Mr. Culo denigrates someone else’s spelling/grammar, he should look to his own. His entire story sounds pretty fishy.

  • C Schwartz

    But they will interline on separate tickets for status members, which mean that the airline can do it …..

    “Travelers who are Premier Gold level or above with United will also be
    exempt from the new rule, and can go on checking their bags as before.”

  • C Schwartz

    It means the same in Italian……

  • pauletteb

    If an adult passed through the gate immediately before or after the child, the gate agent might have assumed he was with one of them. Daddy had zero intention of flying and tried to sneak his kid through the system.

  • pauletteb

    I just flew United through Dulles. No one asked ANY child what his/her age was before boarding.

  • AAGK

    So the kid bolts down the jetway without dad and refuses to come back? Also, I can’t remember the last time there wasn’t at least a couple of people in front of me on line when stepping into the aircraft, and these weren’t first class tickets, so the kid would’ve been fairly close when dad realized. Even if kid did decide to board alone and remain seated without his dad, that’s still the dad’s problem since the kid is 10.

  • Michael__K

    I don’t see how this is relevant to the case at hand. This wasn’t a case of a ‘connection’ that was booked as a standalone flight.

  • Michael__K

    That would be a unwarranted and lousy assumption and a lousy process.

    And you are making some unwarranted assumptions yourself. In fact, if he really wanted to sneak his kid through the system, it appears he would have succeeded.

  • MarkKelling

    My comment was they (United gate agents) asked who the child was with if they approached with their own boarding pass in hand, not how old anyone was and not if the boarding pass was held by the parent or adult with the child.

    At the airports I fly from on United, there seem to be multiple children who have their own boarding pass in hand when getting on the planes. It might be different elsewhere.

  • MarkKelling

    United boarding pass reader machines go crazy when you scan your exit row seat and the gate agent has to verify you are OK with having that seat.

    Why wouldn’t the machine react similarly if a child too young to travel alone presented a boarding pass to board alone? The gate agent could then ask “Who are you with?” and refuse to board the child until daddy was there with him.

  • C Schwartz

    What I have read about the changing of the separate ticket baggage interlining is that it was done over liability issues — I would suspect that the liability is the reason that they will not do an UM interline .

  • MarkKelling

    I read the article. That is what it said in what was provided. Sorry you and I didn’t get the same understanding.

    “he had paid for United’s unaccompanied minor service, it was not appearing in his reservation ” – therefore my statement that the flight had been changed to a connecting or code share flight from an original non-stop. Since the cities are not noted in the article, it is impossible to verify what type of flights are involved. I never said UnAM was possible on a connecting on code share flight.

    “Andre was allowed to board the plane but he was not, despite holding a boarding pass that had been issued a few minutes before” – I took this as meaning dad bought a last minute ticket when he was told the UnAM option was not possible.

    “Several members of the staff asked him to give up his seat.” – sounds like he was being bumped due to an oversold situation, not that he was asking United to not go.

    Of course I also don’t have the advocates notes. They seem to arrive at a sightly different interpretation of the facts as noted in the article. And I also feel that since the OP acted in what is described as confrontational and angry in his correspondence, things probably didn’t go smoothy at the airport either. Airlines really don’t want to deal with confrontational passengers.

  • PsyGuy

    Kids not going to realize that, and even if he did say anything, the dad just says the airline kidnapped him and wouldn’t deboard his son, after all they boarded him without a parent to begin with.

  • PsyGuy

    Dad has to send the kid to visit mom?

  • PsyGuy

    Some airlines won’t interline the PAX.

  • PsyGuy

    They do with minors. This kid is 10, he isn’t going to look 18.UA errored and errored bad, they just caught it before it got criminally, law suite, all over the news bad.

  • PsyGuy

    42

  • MarkKelling

    I thought the child drove himself to the airport, checked in at the ticket counter to get his boarding pass and checked luggage all by himself, maybe stopped at a bar along the way, and waited at the gate for dad to arrive. ;-/

    Of course they checked in together. So what? They are still on completely separate and unrelated PNRs.

  • jah6

    I didn’t read all these confusing and convoluted details, but what stood out glaringly to me was that United allowed an unaccompanied 10 year old child to board a plane. I don’t know whether the father was trying to scam them, but I too might have been outraged enough to think they deserved to pay out a million dollars if it had been my child.

  • Mel65

    But, per United the flight was NOT oversold, “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.” I’m confused why everyone keeps saying he got bumped because the flight was oversold…

  • Michael__K

    Except they DO accept the liability for baggage if you actually buy a real interline ticket.

  • JewelEyed

    That must be new-ish, because when I was a minor in the 90s and early 2000s, no one ever asked me who I was with.

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