S.C. mother relieved but upset after son flown to wrong city

COLUMBIA -- Summerville resident Jennifer Merchant is breathing a little easier after a frantic Monday night when she said United Airlines lost her 12-year-old son.

Stephen Carswell called his mother from his cell phone to tell her he had boarded his 6:55 p.m. plane at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. But an hour and a half later, he didn't get off to meet his father in Washington, D.C., as expected.

"I was hysterical. I had no idea where he was," Merchant said.

For the next hour, Merchant called United Airlines and airport security in Columbia, while Donald Carswell -- her ex-husband and Stephen's father -- talked with security at Washington Dulles International Airport.

The airline and two airports were uncertain of his whereabouts, Merchant said.

Just before his plane left Columbia, Stephen told his mother that a flight attendant mentioned the plane was going to Chicago. But Merchant assumed it was landing in Washington and connecting to Chicago, she said.

United Airlines said her son never got on the flight to Washington and was not on any of their other flights, Merchant added.

"I kind of panicked at first because I had the feeling of not knowing what was going on," Donald Carswell said. "It got really bad that the people at United told me he never checked onto any of the flights. You can imagine the feeling of helplessness then."

Finally, Merchant received a call from Stephen at 9:38 p.m., an hour after his plane was supposed to land in Washington. He told her he was OK but was in Chicago, not D.C.

"United Airlines said the gate agent (in Columbia) was loading two planes at one time and didn't check his ticket close enough and put him on the wrong plane," Merchant said.

Stephen also said the flight staff wouldn't let him call his parents, and they wouldn't notify them by radio, either.

"They could've radioed back to Columbia," Merchant said. "How easy would that have been to ease the anguish and pain" of not knowing?

Donald Carswell said he, too, is upset. While he said it would have helped if Merchant had mentioned their son's conversation with the flight attendant, Carswell still faults the airline for not checking Stephen's boarding pass and for not contacting the Washington airport about the mistake.

"The only problem I have with United is allowing him to get on a wrong plane, and once they figured it out, they did nothing and did not notify his parents," he said.

Accompanied service declined

United Airlines is investigating the incident to ensure it doesn't happen again, spokesman Jeff Kovick said.

"We apologize to the customer for the situation and the inconvenience," he said. "It's a rare occurrence. ... But they declined our accompanied service. As rare as this may be, we have a strong program in place to provide support for kids traveling without adult supervision."

Merchant said she did not pay a $10 fee to walk her son to the gate because Stephen told her he was fine.

"Once he turned 12, he said he didn't want to be accompanied" to and from the planes, Merchant said, so she and her ex-husband decided not to pay the $99 fee for that service.

But accompanied or not, any passenger who hands an attendant a ticket to the wrong gate should be steered to the correct one, Merchant said.

The airline flew Stephen from Chicago to Washington late Monday night for free, gave Donald Carswell a $200 voucher for United Airlines and gave Merchant a free ticket for a future United Airlines flight.

But she said that is not enough and is contacting an attorney to see whether she has grounds to sue the airline.

"I don't want this to happen again," Merchant said. "For the simple fact that once he was in the air, why they couldn't call back air traffic control? How hard is that?"