What to Know about Children Flying Alone

The post-Sept. 11 bans on unaccompanied minors have been reversed, but hefty airline fees and tricky regulations remain in place

By Linda Ober, Wednesday, Apr 13, 2005, 12:00 AM

The first few years of a child's life are filled with precious firsts: first time riding a bike, first visit from the Tooth Fairy and more recently, first time flying. Long gone are the days when Americans didn't set foot on an airplane until their post-college years. Children today are seasoned travelers, rivaling businessmen for their frequent flyer miles.

Maybe the more interesting trend is not that kids are flying but that they're doing so without Mom and Dad in tow, despite post-Sept. 11 security concerns and a series of "misplaced children" incidents during the summer of 2001 (remember all of the media coverage about the kids who were put on wrong planes and criss-crossed the country?).

These accidents caused many airlines to revamp their unaccompanied minor, or UM, policies regarding minimum ages for connecting flights, said Kyle McCarthy, editor and a founding partner of the Family Travel Forum (familytravelforum.com). Then came the horror of Sept. 11, and for a brief period of time, many airlines would not accept UMs on any flights.

Lucky for parents, the "no UMs allowed" ruling has since been reversed. "It [UM policy] has become more liberal again, and I think a lot of that is due to consumer demand," McCarthy said, noting that the demand comes from an increased mobility in today's society. She believes that more children are now traveling alone because of custody matters but also because extended families are living farther away from one another. She calls UM travel "a necessary evil."

While many airlines don't keep tabs on or release how many UMs (usually considered ages 5-11 or 5-14) fly with it, the total number of children flying solo every year is likely in the millions--and growing. Northwest alone estimates that it flew with more than 150,000 in 2002, while Alaska shuttled more than 29,000 in that same time period.

"Most of them [children flying alone] are shared custody issues right down to foster care," said Scheline Wright, head of Alaska Airline's UM center in Seattle. Wright often sees the same children multiple times in one year, and some fly so much that they have elite status with the airline.

UM defined

Five is the magic number when it comes to unaccompanied minors. If your traveling tyke is even one day shy of his fifth birthday, you'll be hard-pressed to find an airline willing to let him fly solo (don't try to get around this--many airlines ask to see proof of age during check-in).

After that basic tenet, UM policies vary from airline to airline (see chart for details). Some, like Delta and Northwest, allow any minor ages 5 and up to travel on all flights, regardless of whether or not they are connecting, nonstop or direct. You'll find, however, that most major airlines give Junior a cut-off mark; often ages 5-7 (or 5-11) can travel on direct or nonstop trips only.

Once you've determined that your child is eligible to book on a certain flight, be prepared to pay the regular adult fare. A seat is a seat is a seat--you don't get a discount just because your little one may weigh less than the complimentary pack of peanuts. You'll rarely find offers for special youth fares, and discounting tickets for UMs is a nonexistent practice. In fact, the additional UM fees can add up to one-third of the cost of a ticket onto your child's final fare.

Super supervision: Show me the money

Can you actually put a price tag on your child's safety? Well, yes. On top of the regular adult fare, most airlines require you to pay an escort fee for your UM. The rules vary, but escorts are usually mandatory for children ages 5-11 or 5-14, and you can opt to pay for one for your 12 (or 15) to 17-year-old as well (though be prepared for the deadly, parent-hating look your adolescent will undoubtedly direct your way upon departure).

All airlines charge differently (see chart), depending on your child's flight type and destination. The gold medal for bargain escort prices is a tie--both Southwest and Jet Blue never charge for escorts no matter what, though it is only fair to note that neither flies internationally. International escort fees for the major airlines usually run from $40 to $90 each way for transatlantic or transpacific flights, while connecting flights range from $40 to $75 each way. Nonstop or direct flights are generally about $30 less each way, though there are some airlines (i.e. United) that charge a flat rate for all options. Because airlines' escort fees are all so similar, it doesn't pay to shop to see which one is a few bucks cheaper. Concentrate on finding budget fares.

Escorts' duties are pretty straightforward, though nothing to be taken lightly--they ensure that your child gets on and off the plane and is supervised during the interim. Escorts (who may be customer service agents, flight attendants, etc.) are also charged with the very important job of helping your child connect to the right flight(s) and making sure that he is released to the proper person (each escort must sign paperwork documenting that they have turned your child over to the next airline employee). Think of them as really well-paid babysitters (hmmm&or not--what's the going rate these days anyway?).

The escort fee also pays the cover charge at clubs--no, not generic airport bars and lounges, but supervised areas (usually at the busiest hubs where connections are common) that keep the kiddies occupied during any layovers. The airlines all call it something different--AirTran has Tranland, Delta has Dusty's Den--but basically they deliver the same things: big-screen televisions, DVDs, books, crafts and games. All of these diversions are for the sole purpose of alleviating the boredom the rest of us must suffer while waiting for our planes (shall we start a petition for such fun centers for adults? Anyone? Anyone?). Many UM sites also have their own bathrooms to provide for extra security, and all locations are supervised by airlines' staff.

While the larger of these clubs are indeed added bonuses, frequent air travel can really add up, even with today's discounted airfares. Are there any ways to get around these additional fees besides flying Southwest and Jet Blue? While we don't want to deflate your hopes (or your wallet), we must tell you that the fees are rarely waived. That's not to say that it never happens--some airlines allow you to kiss the fees goodbye by applying the miles your child has accumulated through its frequent flyer program.

Even if you can't get the fees waived, you can save money (and make the trip more enjoyable for your kid) if your child travels with a buddy. Most airlines only require you to pay a single fee each way when you book more than one child at the same time.

Nothing is perfect

UM programs are hardly perfectly-greased systems, and though the media hasn't reported any escort snafus recently, that doesn't mean that they don't or can't happen. While you don't always have power over what goes on with the escorts, you do have control of your child before and after the flight. A few things to be aware of:

  • Give notice: When you're booking your child's flight, make sure that you tell the reservations department that your child will be traveling alone. Call up again a few days before departure to confirm that the airline has your child listed as an UM.
  • Book wisely: Do not try to book your child on the last flight of the day. Most airlines won't do it (the same usually goes for red eyes, with some exceptions), for fear that your child might be stranded at the airport if something should happen.
  • Prepare for problems: Read up on the airline's policies regarding delays and other unforeseen problems. For example, did you know that an airline can refuse to board your child if the weather is particularly perilous? Once in the air, you can track your child's flight by calling the airline or going to FlightArrivals.com(flightarrivals.com).
  • Be an early bird: Get to the airport early (airlines recommend 90 minutes to two hours before the scheduled departure time). UMs are usually pre-boarded so that they can get comfortable with the plane and with their escorts. They may even get to take the much sought after tour of the cockpit--so lucky!
  • Have it in writing: Don't leave home without the proper paperwork and documentation. Just to be safe, bring a birth certificate and other forms of identification that may be required (check with your airline). You will have to fill out a form that designates who is to pick up your child at the arrival airport. (Important note: the name you give the airline is the only person who pick up your child, tell Aunt Edna that she can't send Uncle Albert to get the kids if she's already promised to do so). And that individual must have identification with them. "That's a non-negotiable thing," said Wright, the head of Alaska Airline's UM center in Seattle. "We're really strict. There's no room for flexibility."
  • Don't rush off: Stay until the plane is in the air. Just because it's on the runway doesn't mean it's going to take off right then and there. Parents often leave the minute the plane is on the runway, only to later learn that it returned to the gate due to mechanical problems.
  • Give 'em "the talk": Talk to your "older" minors about respecting the UM rules. UMs are usually the last to get off of the plane so that flight attendants can keep track of them, but sometimes older kids like to walk off. This can create panic and confusion for both the guardians and the airlines, according to Wright.
  • Review the rules: Look into your airline's rules for security checkpoint authorization. New security measures have been in effect since Sept. 11, and you will have to get a special pass in order to meet your child at the gate (note that some airlines only allow one guardian beyond security). "It might be an extra step, but it's a necessary step given the environment we're in," said Carlos Bertolini, a spokesman for American Airlines. You may also want to keep informed about new security issues by visiting the Web sites for of the Federal Aviation Administration (faa.gov) or the Transportation Security Administration (tsa.gov).
  • Provide creature comforts: Make your child feel as comfortable as possible about flying alone. Pack a carry-on with some of his favorite games, snacks and a calling card in case he has to make an emergency call. Write out all of your contact information, as well that of the person picking him up, on a sheet of paper. Also write down the information for all flights he is taking during the trip. Some airlines will give children a pouch or a pin that holds all of these details, but it's best to go prepared with your own.