What you need to know about sending your child on a plane flight alone

US Airways plane being readied at the airport by NSL Photography, http://www.nslphotography.com

Last week, I wrote about 9 year old Chloe Boyce’s trek on Southwest Airlines as an unaccompanied minor. The flight from Nashville to New York City would have been tough enough for the youngster traveling alone, as it arrived late at each stop, but for some unknown reason, in Baltimore, in apparent violation of its own rules, a Southwest employee removed Chloe from her flight and booked her on a later flight to to New York without ever contacting Chloe’s mother.

As I fly for business and leisure I see unaccompanied youngsters flying on almost all my flights. It’s been reported that JetBlue has flown more than 40,000 unaccompanied minors in a year, American Airlines about 200,000 and Southwest more than 100,000. Those are staggering statistics.

Today, families are spread across the country and may even be overseas. Many children who’s parents don’t have the wherewithal to allow them to accompany their offspring, travel alone to visit their grandparents and/or other relatives.

Children, whose parents are divorced, often fly alone to fulfill legal custody arrangements and requirements. Due to remarriage, and especially in these difficult economic times, job opportunities, divorced parents may live hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.

I’ve got a few suggestions how parents can minimize the problems a child might encounter flying alone, and help them travel safely.

• Consider the maturity of your youngster. Airlines allow children as young as 5 years-old to travel unaccompanied, but many children are incapable of travel without a parent, in the presence of strangers who don’t devote their full attention to them every moment. They may not be able to handle the unusual situations we periodically encounter when flying, such as long delays, difficult weather conditions, and rescheduling.

My rule of thumb is if your child isn’t mature enough to travel alone on public transportation, such as a bus, or a train, or isn’t able to spend time away from family in a well organized situation such as an overnight camp, or a youth group trip, then your child shouldn’t fly unaccompanied.

• Make sure you know all the airline’s rules and policies about unaccompanied minors before making a reservation. Understand what supervision of your child they promise, what happens if flights are diverted or delayed, and what they require of you as the parent.

• If your child must fly unaccompanied, schedule only direct, nonstop flights, if possible. This minimizes the total in-transit time, opportunities during which something can go wrong due to weather and mechanical problems, and the chance your child would encounter an overnight delay requiring them to stay in a hotel room, alone, in a strange city.

• If an intermediate stop, or change of planes is unavoidable, minimize the number of intermediate stops, and schedule plane changes at smaller, less difficult airports, if possible.

• Book morning flights. If their flight is delayed or canceled, you have the rest of the day for alternate plans.

• When you make your child’s reservation, make sure your youngster has a seat near where flight attendants’ are for much of the flights, and where they generally sit during take off and landings; the galleys.

• Before the day of the flight, tell your child what to expect at the airport(s), during the flights, and at the pickup airport. Familiarize them with their itinerary. Don’t just explain the nuts and bolts of what will happen, explain what kind of experiences they should expect. This is especially important if it’s their first flight.

Discuss the behavior you expect of them during their journey.

Discuss the potential behavior of other passengers and what would be inappropriate or unacceptable on their part. Be sure your child knows they must inform a flight attendant or other airline representative, if such behavior occurs.

Make certain your child knows they shouldn’t tell another passenger their full name, address, phone number, where they are going, and other personal information.

• On the day of the flight, make sure your child is well rested. Get to the airport early to have plenty of time to get to the gate with them, to reduce their anxiety and stress level. Make sure your child has a complete copy of all emergency and contact information, their itinerary, travel documents, and a brief medical history, plus written instructions about handling flight problems. Make sure they have money to pay for necessities during their travel.

Being able to communicate with you at any time will reduce your’s and your child’s anxiety. Give your child a cell phone with your phone number preprogrammed. If they don’t have a cell phone of their own, get them a prepaid phone. They’re inexpensive. Tell your child to call if there’s a problem, when they complete each part of their journey, or just to talk to you, anytime they want, except while in the plane, of course. Make sure they know how to call you from a public phone in case the cell phone dies.

Give your child a photo of you and the person who will be picking them up. This will help quell possible ID woes at the end of each flight.

• In addition to a checked-in bag, if necessary, send them with no more than one carry-on, which they can physically handle themselves. Make sure you pack items to occupy their time while in transit like a book, Mp3 player, and games, with earphones.

• Pack food for your child, so the have food they like. Purchase juice or water for your child after you pass through the security checkpoint.

• Never leave the airport before your child’s plane is in the air.

• Be sure the person picking up your child has their ID, knows the rules they must follow, and is at the airport early, in case of problems.

If you have other suggestions, please add to my list in the comment area.

On this second day of 2012, I wish you and your family a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

  • Mapsmith

    Actually, the best plan would be for the unaccompanied minor to be accompanied.  With UM fees now in the $100 range, it seems like the parent could buy (on Southwest) a Web only fare that is in that range. 

    Also, consider a flight when you think the kid is old enough where you are on the flight buy widely separated from the kid.  Basically an UM flight where you can be on the sidelines.

  • bunadoo

    And don’t think that paying an airline’s  UM fee charged guarantees anything.  I sent my 14 year old son to visit his sister in New Zealand.  When he arrived at LAX, no one was there to meet him, no one would assist him to find the right terminal for the outbound flight to NZ.  I called the airline and they gave me some story that I was suppose to have contacted a third party UM service to meet him at LAX.  That was the first time I was told that bit of news.  Fortunately,  there was a long layover so we were able to talk him to the right gate over  the phone. This was before the day of cheap prepaid cell phones so it was collect calls all the way.  Best advice is to give the child a prepaid cell phone and have them call at every step of the way so you can track their progress.  And I totally agree that the child should be old enough to cope with strange situations and people before flying unaccompanied.

  • Anonymous

    They have monetized the little children now.  What’s next? $50 for your primary carry on?   Be like Ryan Air and $2 to use the toilet in flight?   
     Just like they did with the pets a decade ago — if you bring your CAT, it eats up your carry on AND it costs you a $100 for the privledge.  

    You pay big bucks to get your kid where they need to go, and yet, for that money, the airlines offer NO GUARANTEES.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YJOFCUW4S62AICSGYG562VMHZY Marje

    Name one area of life where there are guarantees that might not be honored.
    Sadly, we are living in a time many of us resent and regret, but we play with the hand we are dealt.
    This article is a must read, IMO, for all who have no choice but to stay home and worry while the children face the wide world too soon and with too little care and support from the population in general. Trust is gone and all a parent can do is what’s in this article and have faith it will work out. Often, I think, there will be a compassionate person to help out in a pinch. But the kids need to be taught about what the girl scouts called (and might still) “funny tummy feelings.” If it feels wrong, it could be and that cell phone is essential. 
    As a grandparent, soon to be great grandparent, I thank you for this excellent piece. Happy New Year and Happy Travels to you……

  • Anonymous

    The average airline system is broken badly. I have seen minors told to sit down and be good, while the employee goes off for a smoke. Then the child heads for the toy store. It is so bad that we pay $100.00 TO PROTECT OUR CHILDREN AND THEY DON’ REALLY DO IT.

  • Frank

    I dont think you mentioned this, but, this is huge!  We, as flight attendants, introduce ourselves to these children and one of the first things we say to them is:  WHEN WE LAND, REMAIN SEATED, WE’LL COME GET YOU.  Mind you, when school starts after the summer months, we see a large number of children traveling alone.  We can get several kids per flight.  So, if a child decides to get up and leave with the other passengers, it’s very hard to know if a child is with someone or they are infact traveling alone.  I’ve watched flight attendants, IN HORROR, go back to the assigned seats and see that they have already left.

    TEACH YOUR CHILDREN, this rule.  Thank you!