Airline reviews its unaccompanied minor policy

Rules may change after teen left town without parent's consent

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2007

Alaska Airlines says it is reviewing its policies after a 15-year-old Juneau girl bought a one-way ticket without parental consent or identification and boarded a plane bound for Seattle.

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On Wednesday, Aug. 15, Brian and Elise Pringle learned that their 15-year-old daughter had boarded an airplane in an attempt to meet an online boyfriend in North Carolina. Because of airline and Transportation Security Administration policies in place, the girl was able to leave Juneau without parental permission or identification and fly to Seattle before airport police interceded and convinced the girl to return to Alaska that night. The teenager is not being identified because she is a minor.

Alaska Airlines also has agreed to reimburse the cost of the one-way ticket purchased by the girl and the ticket her parents purchased to have their daughter returned to Alaska.

"We have a great deal of compassion for what the family has been through, and we just feel like it was the right thing to do," said Amanda Tobin Bielawski, a spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines.

Elise Pringle said she and her husband were told earlier in the week they would be reimbursed, but it had not happened as of Thursday night.

Bielawski said the company followed all policies. The company does not require those between 13 and 17 to participate in its Unaccompanied Minor Service, which provides an escort, and it does not have an age restriction for purchasing a ticket.

"We did properly follow all policies and procedures with the situation," Bielawski said. "Nonetheless, we have begun to take a close look to review those policies once again, and that review process is underway right now."

TSA does not require passengers 17 and younger to present photo identification prior to boarding an airplane. It, however, does require all passengers 18 and older to do so. TSA could not be reached for comment by deadline.

The Pringle family said it still is looking for answers from the airlines and government officials as to how such a loophole could exist. Pringle said the policies in place are troubling on a number of levels, from parents' rights to potential security risks.

"I still haven't gotten my answers yet," she said. "I'm not going to go away until somebody somewhere answers my questions - until someone can figure out there needs to be new policies in place."

Brian Pringle, a retired Juneau Police Department officer who served 22 years on the force, said he wanted to raise his family in his hometown because Juneau is a safe community. Only being able to reach the capital by airplane or boat added to their comfort level as parents, he said.

"We always felt safe," he said.

But the airline and TSA policies make them question how safe children in Juneau are, he said.

"I want to stop this now so we don't have any other parents - especially in our community with our one airline - that have to go through this," Elise Pringle said. "It has to be stopped."

The family said it has also been overwhelmed by the national attention the story has received.

"It's been just this side of the Twilight Zone," Brian Pringle said. "Or maybe we did cross that border."

One of the most bothersome aspects is the scrutiny placed on them as parents, he said. As someone who spent his career helping children and families through difficult situations, Pringle said it is not abnormal for teenagers to make unwise decisions.

"It's our duty as adults to watch out for kids," he said. "Our kids, the way they see the world is not the way you and I see the world. ... I really stand behind my firm conviction that it is the responsibility of adults, every adult, to help kids not be their own worst enemy."

The girl has been remanded to the Johnson Youth Center for allegedly stealing the money used to purchase the initial plane ticket. The daughter remains in custody, Elise Pringle said.

"She's not a bad girl," she said. "She's a good girl. She made a bad decision."

They have received tremendous support from parents, including one from Juneau who experienced an eerily similar experience years ago, Pringle said.

"I'm not the first parent this has happened to, and that's why I'm so angry," she said.

Pringle said they remain in close contact with their daughter and have since learned she intended to marry the online boyfriend in North Carolina and return to Juneau to live with her parents. There still has been no confirmation of the online boyfriend's age or identity, Elise Pringle said, although they suspect he is a teenager.

Brian Pringle said he wants to see the airlines and government close the loophole.

"I hope something gets done. I really do," he said. "It's not just Alaska Airlines. ... It's the whole airline industry."

The parents said they have not ruled out pursuing legal options to adequately resolve the situation.

"I really think if they walk it the way they talk it, they're going to change that procedure," Brian Pringle said.

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



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