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‘I thought he was kidnapped’: JetBlue confuses two unaccompanied kids, flies them to wrong cities

A 5-year-old was due to fly home to New York from Santiago on Aug. 17. But when his mother went to meet him at the airport, she was given another boy. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Richard Drew/The Washington Post)

For $100 on top of the price of a plane ticket, airline company JetBlue will allow a parent or guardian to book unaccompanied children as young as 5 on nonstop flights. That’s just what a New York woman, Maribel Martinez, did.

Except the script went disastrously wrong, in a way that’s amusing when it stars Macaulay Culkin but not when it happens to real-life mothers.

Martinez, 38, and her 5-year-old son, Andy Martinez Mercado, traveled to the Dominican Republic to visit family members in July. Although mother and son made the departing trip together, Martinez returned to New York after a week while Andy stayed abroad until mid-August. He was scheduled to return to New York on Aug. 17. Martinez planned to meet him when he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Andy’s aunt dropped the child off in Santiago, making sure a JetBlue crew member escorted the child through the airport, Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer for Martinez, told CNN. Fox News Latino reported that Andy was wearing an identification bracelet, in line with JetBlue’s solo minor policy. The New York-bound plane left.

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Fifteen hundred miles to the north, Martinez was waiting. She waited more than an hour after the plane touched down at Kennedy Airport. A JetBlue chaperone brought a boy to be reunited with Martinez. The child who disembarked in New York City held her son’s passport and his luggage.

But he was not Andy.

Terror set in.

“I thought he was kidnapped,” Martinez said in an interview with the New York Daily News on Thursday. “I thought I would never see him again.”

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Andy, Martinez would find out later, was farther north — in Boston.

The boy carrying Andy’s passport in New York was someone else’s child. He was the one who was supposed to be in Boston, not Andy.

The other child has not been named. But one can speculate that whoever was waiting for him in Boston must have been equally concerned to see Andy instead.

How exactly this happened is unclear. Did the two kids swap passports? Did the airline somehow confuse the children and after checking the passports, got them mixed up as they handed them back?

“On August 17, two unaccompanied children of the same age traveling separately from Santiago, Dominican Republic — one to New York JFK and one to Boston — each boarded a flight to the incorrect destination,” Tamara Young, a spokeswoman for JetBlue, said in a statement to CNN.

“Upon learning of the error, our teams in JFK and Boston immediately took steps to assist the children in reaching their correct destinations,” Young said. “While the children were always under the care and supervision of JetBlue crew members, we realize this situation was distressing for their families.”

While New York Port Authority police questioned the boy holding Andy’s passport, JetBlue looked for the missing child.

Martinez said it took three hours for the airline company to locate Andy in Boston. “Mami, they put me on another plane,” he said to her from Boston once they were finally able to talk by phone, Martinez told the Daily News.

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“Any parent can understand the terrifying feeling of fear a mother goes through knowing her young child is missing,” Rubenstein said in a statement. “This should never have happened. Jet Blue’s employees should be ashamed of themselves.”

Martinez’s lawyer is seeking answers — via a Federal Aviation Administration investigation — before filing a lawsuit, according to ABC 7.

The airline company refunded Martinez for her ticket and gave her a $2,100 credit for future JetBlue flights. It will go unused, Martinez said; she does not plan to fly JetBlue again.

Andy and his father have since traveled back to the Dominican Republic. According to Fox News Latino, the pair booked a Delta flight.

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