Teenager buys one-way ticket to a nightmare

Loophole allows youth to fly without parents' permission

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2007

Early Wednesday morning Elise Pringle awoke to find her daughter missing. Her nightmare had only just begun.

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Pringle's daughter, 15, had purchased a $733 one-way ticket with cash at the Juneau International Airport without parental consent. Nearly a week later, the girl was able to board a plane to Seattle without identification in an attempt to begin a new life in North Carolina with a boyfriend she met on the Internet.

"I thought, unbeknownst, that my child would not only have to have permission, but I thought she would have to have identification at the very least," Pringle said.

Turns out, that's not the case. The daughter, who is not being identified because she is a minor, was able to use a loophole in the system, which allows those between 13 and 17 to board a plane without identification or parental permission.

"It's been a nightmare," Pringle said. "This has been an absolute nightmare and I didn't believe in my wildest dreams that this could happen."

Alaska Airlines has an Unaccompanied Minor Service that is required for passengers 5 to 12 years old who travel without a guardian, spokesperson Amanda Tobin Bielawski said. The program requires an escort to the departure gate as well as guardian contact information, she said. Children younger than 5 are not allowed to travel unaccompanied.

The airline offers the same service for children between the ages of 13 and 17 if the ticket purchaser requests it, Bielawski said.

"It's not required for them to participate in that," she said. "So the person traveling and-or the parent are able to choose whether or not they participate in that program. If they choose not to, they would travel just like any adult."

Bielawski also said it is at the discretion of the ticket agent to determine if a child appears to be in the age group required to participate in the unaccompanied minor service.

"We don't have any age restriction for purchasing a ticket," she said.

Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Jennifer Peppin said airline passengers 18 and older are required to present photo identification prior to boarding. Travelers 17 and younger need only a boarding pass, she said.

"They don't have to have photo identification, because what type of photo identification does a 15-year-old have?" Peppin said.

TSA agents thoroughly screen all passengers prior to boarding an airplane, regardless of age, she said.

"Our responsibility is through the screening process," Peppin said, adding that individual airlines determine their own unaccompanied minor polices. "It sounds like the child had a boarding pass, so that would not raise a red flag for us."

A minor without photo identification purchasing a ticket with cash and without parental consent should have raised a red flag somewhere along the line, Pringle, the mother, said.

"How are we supposed to protect our children when Alaska Airlines can just fly them out of here?" she said. "There is a precedent that needs to be set."

Pringle's ordeal was still only beginning after she learned her daughter had purchased a ticket and was trying to leave town. Family members arrived at the airport trying to stop her from leaving only to be told they were not authorized to access any of the girl's flight information, she said.

"They knew my daughter was on that plane but they would not remove my daughter from that plane," she said. "I did not authorize my daughter to leave Juneau."

"Under our policy, we do not release information of our passengers to members of the public who might call us," Bielawski said.

There have been instances in the industry where people have attempted to acquire passenger information under false pretenses in a variety of disconcerting ways, she said.

"It's difficult to differentiate the intentions of the people calling without being able to validate who the person is that is calling," Bielawski said.

Alaska Airlines wants to make sure the person calling is doing so with good intentions, and the best way to do that is through collaboration with law enforcement, she said.

"It really is to protect the safety and security of the passenger," Bielawski said.

Pringle says the policies are what ultimately jeopardized her daughter's safety. She said an airline representative went so far to uphold the policy that the employee terminated the conversation.

"I was an absolute panic-stricken mom," she said. "They should not have hung up on me. They should have moved mountains."

Bielawski said the airline is continuing to work closely with the family to resolve the incident.

Pringle's nightmare was still far from over.

After her daughter's flight left Juneau, Pringle contacted the Port of Seattle police to track her daughter down. The police told Pringle her daughter was trying to fly to North Carolina.

"I got really angry. I was frustrated. I was crying," she said. "You name the emotion, I've been through it."

Pringle was able to provide the Port of Seattle police with her daughter's social networking Web site log-in information and password, which provided a recent photograph and more information about the girl's online boyfriend. She had made it a rule that if the girl was to use Myspace.com, the site where she met the boyfriend the family knows little about, the daughter had to provide the log-in and password information.

"Had I not had her password, it would have been a lot more difficult," she said.

Sea-Tac Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said the Port of Seattle police were able to find the girl at the gate of her connecting flight.

"Based on the information they got, they were able to identify her and connect with her," he said. "They spoke with her and convinced her to get on the phone and talk with her mother."

Yet Pringle's difficulties continued.

"They found her, and here's your catch: Not only was my daughter transported across state lines without my authorization and without identification ... they said she has to volunteer to come home," Pringle said.

Because the teenager was considered an unreported runaway, the police were unable to detain her, Cooper said.

Pringle said the officers went above and beyond their duty and helped convince her daughter to return to Juneau that evening.

Pringle said she had to pay roughly $400 for an Alaska Airlines ticket to return her child Wednesday night. Because the daughter allegedly stole the money from her parents for the initial ticket, Pringle said they are out nearly $1,200.

Pringle said she wants to save her daughter from a life of destructive behavior so she has filed theft charges against her. The girl was in juvenile court on Friday and remanded to the Johnson Youth Center, she said.

Pringle said she is determined to let parents know that their children can get on a plane without permission or identification and there is little they can do about it due to the policies in place. She said she is determined to find answers and wants the airlines and TSA to reconsider their policies.

Pringle has contacted the offices of Alaska's highest officials and says she is not going away until she gets some answers as to why such policies are allowed. A law needs to be put in place to protect the children from unnecessarily putting themselves in harm's way, she said.

"I'm beside myself," Pringle said. "We have a risk to our children in this town and nationwide."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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