• U.S.

When Kids Fly Solo

3 minute read
Amy Dickinson

My daughter’s life as an “unaccompanied minor” started last year when I put her on a plane for the first time by herself. After I had ferried her for years between Washington and New York to visit her dad, she felt ready, at 12, to go alone. The airline let me accompany her onto the plane and get her settled in her seat. I had scanned the flight crew for signs of fatigue or drunkenness, introduced myself to the flight attendants and inspected the wings to make sure they were attached to the aircraft before my daughter looked up at me and said, “Mom, get off the plane.”

An estimated 7 million kids flew alone last year, about 1% of the total flying public. In an increasingly mobile society, where kids like mine are shuttling between divorced parents or being sent to visit far-flung relatives, this percentage will probably grow. Unfortunately, several cases of airlines’ sending kids to the wrong destination are bound to give parents like me the jitters.

America West Airlines announced last week it will no longer allow children under 12 to fly unaccompanied on flights requiring connections because of three recent incidents in which children ended up at the wrong airports. I wonder if everyone–the public, the media and the airline–is overreacting. Jim Sabourin, vice president of America West, told me that in each case the airline knew quickly that the children were put on the wrong connecting flight, and immediately made arrangements to get them to the correct destination. The incidence of children being misdirected is rare; so far this year the Department of Transportation has received only a handful of complaints concerning misdirected kids.

The major U.S. airlines have a system that seems to work. They require that parents fill out a form noting who will meet the child, that adults greeting the child produce photo identification and that family on both ends of the voyage provide phone numbers. Airlines offer escorts for children for a fee (usually $30) to hand-deliver the child to the connecting flight. G.L. Brown, an airline passenger-service consultant in Winston-Salem, N.C., told me that parents can help by arriving at least 90 minutes before the flight and by supplying phone numbers where they can be reached at all times. After the child boards, parents should wait until they are certain the plane is in the air. A delay on the ground can disrupt connections, and parents should know this before they leave the airport so they can notify whoever is picking up the child of possible delays.

Parents should make every effort to put their children on direct flights but, failing that, can prepare them by writing down flight numbers, phone numbers and connecting information on a slip of paper. Parents should request an aisle seat near the galley so the child will be close to the flight attendants. And they should remember not to wear dread and worry on their faces. For kids, traveling solo can be a fun adventure and a chance to safely test their growing independence. That’s a reason for parents to enjoy the adventure too.

For more on kids’ flying alone, check www.airsafe.com/kidsafe.htm

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