A 13-year-old boy clears customs in Mexico City by himself; a nine-year-old plays quietly at the gate as his plane takes off; a brother and sister are grounded in Honolulu because of bad weather. This is not just the stuff of parents' nightmares but what is revealed by even a cursory glance through the U.S. Department of Transportation's "X-Files" on unaccompanied minors. Flying alone may be an adventure for a lot of kids, but it's one that can end in frayed nerves and frustration for both parent and child. As an increasing number of children brave the friendly skies alone each year, more than a few end up wandering through an unfamiliar airport, missing a connection, or at best being loosely supervised by airline personnel-- even when parents have arranged for an escort (generally required for children 5 to 12), sometimes paying as much as $60 each way.
Since each major U.S. airline establishes its own set of regulations, mishaps are all too common. Susy Rotkis, an attorney at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, warns that "parents have to be very proactive about reviewing all the possible contingencies-- not to instill fear in a child but self-confidence."
MAKE SURE YOU...
- Book connecting flights on the same airline if your child's trip requires one or more stops. A delay can become a crisis when the child is the shared responsibility of two airlines and each thinks the other is notifying the parents.
- Get to the airport early, allowing plenty of time to clear security and pre-board your child. Wait until the plane has taken off before you leave the gate.
- Provide children with a calling card and also teach them how to make collect calls so they can always reach you.
- Remind children to stay in their seats until a flight attendant comes to escort them off the plane.
PARENTS' Q & A
How old do children have to be to fly alone?
At least five to travel nonstop or on direct flights with no plane change; at least eight to travel on flights with a connection.
How will the airline staff be able to reach me?
A passenger information sheet accompanies each child traveling alone. Include your cell-phone and beeper numbers, as well as the name of the person picking up your child.
How can I be sure the escort won't entrust my child to a stranger?
Whoever picks up your child must show photo identification.
What if there's a storm or a flight is canceled and my kid is stranded in an airport overnight?
Children are sometimes boarded at an airline employee's home. Most airlines contact the parents before booking the child into a local hotel with an airline escort.
Can I check on my child's progress en route?
Once a child has boarded a plane, you may not be able to determine his or her whereabouts because of anti-stalking laws that prohibit revealing the identity of passengers. One mother, unable to find out whether her 12-year-old daughter had made her connection at LAX, was told that such information could be given only to a police officer. Though she had provided detailed contact and personal data on her child's passenger information sheet, it took her some time to find a representative willing to help.
HEALTH TIP: If your child is being treated for an ear infection, there's no reason to cancel his or her flight. As long as children can breathe through the nose and no longer have ear or sinus pain, they should feel just fine on the plane. (Check with a doctor if the child complains of severe discomfort.) Don't forget to inform airline staff of any medications your child may still be taking.