There are many reasons that could lead to a child having to fly on their own. Children attend summer camps, visit relatives, or have parents that live in different states. Sometimes a parent does not have the time or resources to accompany a child on the plane, which means they have to travel alone.
Due to the speedy and safe nature of air travel, children being unaccompanied on a plane is not unusual. For example, Southwest Airlines estimates that around 300,000 unaccompanied kids traveled on its airlines in the last year alone.
Kids flying solo may be a common occurrence, but it is still important for parents to plan these trips well in advance. Most unaccompanied minors are sent on direct flights, which reduces the need for transiting in airports and eliminates switching of planes. However, plans can go awry due to bad weather, scheduling issues or other unforeseen circumstances. It is crucial that parents prepare their kids for all possible outcomes when they are flying alone.
Children Flying Alone
When a child is flying alone, airlines will refer to them as unaccompanied minors. Most airlines regulate that a kid must be at least five years old before they can fly, but every carrier has specific policies on this issue.
For example, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and United States Airways will let children fly unaccompanied if they are between five and eleven years old. American Airlines and Delta Airways will extend the unaccompanied minor term to fourteen-year-old kids.
Specific Airline Policies
Southwest Airlines regulates that children who are five to eleven years old are classified as unaccompanied minors if they are not traveling with someone older than 12. Their fee for UMs is $50 for a one-way flight and $100 for the round trip.
Virgin America refuses to allow children aged under five to travel without someone who is at least fifteen years old. Children aged five to fourteen are classified as unaccompanied minors, with a fee of $75 to $125 charged on top of the ticket cost.
Delta Airlines also requires that all children between the age of five and fourteen be called unaccompanied minors. For kids who are 15 to 17 years old, Delta allows for independent travel. However, parents may request unaccompanied minor service for their 15 to 17 year old.
American Airlines classifies unaccompanied minors as anyone who is under fifteen years old. A flight official must accompany these kids if they are traveling alone, or by someone who is at least 16 years old.
Statistics for Children Flying Alone
There are always freak incidents involving children who are flying alone. For example, there was a case where airport officials mixed up two children. This resulted in a Boston bound by going to Cleveland and a Cleveland bound girl going to Boston.
Another incident in Chicago resulted in a boy, less than ten years old, spending eight hours alone in an airport lounge because officials forgot to accompany him to his plane.
Such incidents always scare parents, but it is important to remember that they are a tiny minority. Airlines estimate that millions of children travel alone by airplane throughout the world. There are no problems whatsoever in 99% of unaccompanied minor journeys.
When airlines know that an unaccompanied minor will be joining them on a flight, they do everything to ensure the child’s experience is pleasant. However, a lot of things can go wrong in a scheduled flight. For example, bad weather could cause delays or unscheduled stops. Sometimes unaccompanied minors may find themselves rebooked on another flight by the airline if there are problems with the existing booking.
Some changes to the flight plan may occur after an unaccompanied minor has boarded the first plane. In these instances, airlines will attempt to contact parents or legal guardians to assess the situation. It is very important that parents provide airlines with multiple contact numbers. In addition, unaccompanied minors should be given a cell phone they can use to communicate with their parents.
As soon as the unaccompanied minor boards the plane, they are taken care of by a flight attendant. Depending on the rest of the journey, the flight attendant could have several responsibilities. In a direct flight, he or she will accompany the child to the exit gates until they are safely in the custody of the guardian(s) they are meeting. If the unaccompanied minor is getting on a connecting flight, the attendant will take them to an airport official who will then take them onto the next plane.
What About Connecting Flights?
Parents are always advised to book their children on direct flights. Reducing the number of stops results in a smoother and less complicated journey for the unaccompanied minor. Changing planes more than once is not recommended, because that would put the unaccompanied minor in the care of three or more adults during their journey. However, in extenuating circumstances airlines will do everything to keep the child safe and ensure their journey is a comfortable one.
Some airports have lounges that cater to children and unaccompanied minors. Other locations may have a flight attendant or airport official sit with the kid while they wait to board the next connecting flight. These officials can also assist the unaccompanied minor if there are any changes to the flight plan.
When parents are booking a flight for their child, they should look carefully at the departure time. Most airlines prefer that unaccompanied minors travel on the first flight of the day. This gives them leeway should the flight be delayed due to bad weather or mechanical issues. If an unaccompanied minor is booked on the last flight of the day, they could be stuck at the airport overnight in the event of a problem.
The unaccompanied minor and his or her parents should travel early to the airport so that the pre-boarding process can be completed smoothly. It takes time to fill out paperwork related to unaccompanied minors traveling. Some airlines and airports allow parents to pass through security when their child is flying alone, but they are not allowed to go beyond the departure gate. Other airlines may only allow parents to say goodbye before the security area, after which an airport official or flight attendant will accompany their child to the gate and beyond.
Parents who are sending their kids unaccompanied on an international flight must prepare the necessary documents. In addition to passports and visas (where necessary), there should be a signed letter stating that the child is allowed to travel alone. These letters may have to be notarized depending on the destination country.
Some airlines charge an additional fee for unaccompanied minors. These charges are usually $50 to $100, depending on the length of the flight and how many stops are made. These fees are charged per situation, not per child. For example, two unaccompanied minors traveling together will incur the same fees as one child traveling alone.
Parents may be scared away by the extra cost of requesting unaccompanied minor service, but it is important to remember that most child airline tickets are less expensive. Most importantly, there is nothing that takes precedence over the safety of a child. Spending an extra $50 or $100 to ensure that your child feels safe and secure while traveling is a small price to pay.
Departure and Arrival
It is best for parents to wait at the gate (if they are allowed past security) until the plane has departed. Ideally, parents should stay at the gate for 10 or 15 minutes after they watch the plane depart from the runway. This ensures that parents are around if the plane turns back because of weather or technical issues.
Plans should be in place for how the unaccompanied minor will be picked up at the airport. There should be more than one plan in place. For example, if a relative if picking up the child, a back up plan should be created. Unaccompanied minors should be provided with all relevant phone numbers when traveling, both for calling their parents and their relatives/guardians at the destination. Airlines request contact numbers at both the departure and arrival city.
Whoever is picking up the unaccompanied minor should get there with plenty of time to spare. If they are late, it will cause a great inconvenience to the flight attendant or airport officials who have to stay with the child until their guardian or relative arrives.
Hundreds of thousands of children fly alone every year, with a vast majority having smooth and very pleasant experiences. As long as parents and children prepare thoroughly for these situations, there should be no hiccups.
What are you thoughts on kids flying alone? Would you or have you allowed your child to fly alone? Provide some of your experience in the comments below and offer tips and suggestions. We will include your tips and suggestions in our comprehensive beginner’s guide to traveling solo.