Avoid Having an Airline Lose, Strand, or Misplace Your Kid

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My first commercial flight was as an unaccompanied five-year-old minor.  It was a direct flight and my aunt waited at the gate until the plane took-off, and my mom was waiting on the other side when I landed.  It was a fantastic experience, and I am kind of glad my first flight was by myself.  Assuming my kiddo continues on the path to being a trust-worthy child, she will likely fly by herself to her grandparents’ house in Kansas in just a few years.  Suffice to say, I think it is great that kids have the ability to fly as unaccompanied minors starting at five years old.  I think the world has changed a bit since I was 5, but most of the dangers and logistical challenges of sending a kid across the world alone are roughly the same now as they were then.

Each airline has their own version of an unaccompanied minors policy, but here are some common themes:

  • Children under 5 cannot travel without an adult.
  • Children who are roughly elementary school age (varies airline to airline) can fly as an unaccompanied minor, but only on direct flights.
  • Children who are a bit older than that (again, age varies) can travel on connecting flights, but not on the last flight of the day.
  • Teenagers can travel on any itinerary they wish and can either be registered as an unaccompanied minor (and pay the fee), or travel on their own without assistance.
  • If a child is traveling with another person 16 or older they do not have to be registered as an unaccompanied minor.
  • The fee is usually around $100 to fly as a registered unaccompanied minor.

In theory, 1) the airline is responsible for your kiddo if they are registered as an unaccompanied minor and 2) they are some of the most protected persons on the plane due to their age and limited ability to be stranded or problem solve in the event of irregular operations.  However, the theoretical doesn’t always translate to what actually happens.  Just this week I learned of two unique situations on two airlines where things with unaccompanied minors reportedly didn’t go as planned.

The first was on US Airways where a 13 year old and a 16 year old were traveling together from Boston to San Francisco with a connection in Philadelphia.  Details taken from this post on Milepoint I want to point out that technically these were not official unaccompanied minors since they were not registered as such.  They could have been, but it is also okay for them not to be since the 16 year old is old enough to fly alone, and the 13 year old can travel without being an unaccompanied minor when the 16 year old is present.  They made it to their connection in Philly, but then that flight was delayed a few times and ultimately the 13 year old was involuntarily bumped from the flight due to it being over-sold.  This means that the 13 year old would no longer be eligible to travel alone without being an unaccompanied minor since the 16 year old was not bumped.

Ultimately, the 16 year old refused to fly without the younger sibling.  What happen next just baffles my brain.  US Airways reportedly then gave them vouchers and told them to take the shuttle to the Hilton so they could stay there for the night.  Clearly a 16 and 13 year old cannot check into a hotel by themselves, nor should any reasonable adult instruct them to do so.  Hilton requested a chaperone from US Airways to come and get them, (yay Hilton!) and eventually they waited at the airport for an employee to finish their shift, and then the employee stayed in the adjacent room to theirs at the airport Marriott until their flight out the next morning.

My background is in child welfare, and more specifically in child abuse investigations, and this just sent off every warning bell in my head.  Sounds like everything was okay for these kids this time, but that is putting them in some seriously dangerous situations.  Alone with one strange adult in an adjacent hotel room in a strange city.  No, no, no, no thank you.  In my mind there should be at least two adults, and as uncomfortable as an airport is, it is probably a better place to wait out the night than a hotel room.  Just saying….

Of course why in the world US Airways would have bumped these passengers in the first place is beyond me.  The only thing I can possibly assume is that for some reason that agent must not have realized their ages, though I assume that would have been clear when the 16 year old refused to travel without the 13 year old.  I don’t know how their system works, but I know that you have to give DOB’s when you purchase tickets, so it has to be in the system somewhere. With a whole plane of folks to pick from, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have moved to the next folks on the list as opposed to stranding a 13 year old overnight in a strange city.

There is also another event that reportedly happened this summer on United Airlines with a ten-year-old who was flying in late June from San Francisco to Grand Rapids, with a connection in Chicago.  This child was flying as an official unaccompanied minor.  The third-party vendor who was supposed to meet the child in Chicago to assist with getting to the connecting flight didn’t show up.  The child reportedly asked for help from several United employees and was not assisted with getting to the next flight, or with using a phone to contact their parents.  The camp that was supposed to pick the kid up in Grand Rapids phoned the parents when the child was not on the expected flight from Chicago.  That was their first indication that something was wrong.

The parents then got on the phone to United (which is challenging in and of itself) and eventually got through to someone in Chicago, but that person initially refused to arrange for them to speak with their kid since their shift was about to end.  After appealing to that person as a parent they were able to speak to their child, and the child did make it on the next flight to camp.

The real point of sharing these stories is so that parents who choose to fly their children as unaccompanied minors can keep a few things in mind when planning the trip so that this sort of thing hopefully doesn’t happen to their children.

  1. Choose the direct non-stop flight.  I don’t care that it costs more, don’t use a connection unless there is absolutely no other way to get where you are going.
  2. Fly early in the morning.  The earlier in the day the travels start, the more likely that the day will end with everyone being where they are supposed to be.  This is true whether it is a direct or connecting flight.
  3. Make sure you child has a cell phone and knows how to use it.  If they are old enough to fly as an unaccompanied minor, they should know how to use a cell phone.  Even if they don’t normally have a phone, get them a prepaid or similar for the day.  Heck, my two year old can often get Siri to call people on my iPhone.  I have no doubt she will have this mastered by five.
  4. Be available 100% of the time while your child is in transit.  You need to be available if your child or the airline is trying to reach you.
  5. Err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to register your child(ren) as unaccompanied minors, or have them fly on routes that require connections.  When in doubt, don’t risk it.  You can always just buy yourself a ticket and fly along as well.  Better safe than sorry.

I am willing to bet the overwhelming number of problems with unaccompanied minors occur when there is a connection involved.  While I would likely fly my own daughter by herself (assuming she was comfortable with it), I would not fly her on a route that required a connection until she is much, much older.  Heck, I try to avoid connections and I am a grown adult.  They just invite problems with delays, cancellations, weather, etc.  Even a direct flight can have things go wrong, but the chances are greatly diminished once that flight is in the air.

Assuming the facts presented are accurate, the airlines undoubtedly royally goofed up here.  That said, parents and children really have to do what they can to help prevent as many problems as possible ahead of time by planning the flights appropriately.  Parents also need to ensure that the child has a way to contact them at all times in case something unexpectedly goes wrong along the way.

I’ve never been the parent to an unaccompanied minor, but would love to hear some tips from some of you who have had that experience.

 

Comments

  1. interesting post, but your post is only concerning US airlines. Flew SQ JFK-FRA-SIN-HKG last month in J, and was forced to get unaccompanied minor service at JFK or they wouldn’t let me fly. (luckily it was free). I was 16 at the time, and apparently SQ requires UM for anyone under 18. For me though, it was pretty awesome. The FA’s held all my documents, got escorts for security, immigration, etc.
    Even called my relative to pick me up at HKG.

  2. @Mike, idiot is a bit strong in my view. I honestly think that it can be really empowering for kiddos and open them up to a world of possibilities and independence. However, I do agree that some safeguards do need to be in place so that it isn’t a dangerous situation.
    @Jeff, true, this is focused on US airlines. I think it is a good thing for minors to have UM service on international itineraries/airlines. Not surprising that non-US airlines are more accommodating toward “kids”. 😉

  3. My cousin once got stranded as an unaccompanied minor trying to visit us in the Midwest during winter. He loved it; he got a free hotel room, free room service and all the movies he could watch. He called my dad to let us konw he was safe, and I remember being so jealous as he was describing the room and the food he was ordering. So while my aunt was probably freaked out, it was an exciting adventure for him and probably more fun than the rest of the family visit. Of course, this was many years ago, back when airlines still cared about customer service and not just how many fees they can squeeze out of us.

  4. When you say a direct flight you mean a non-stop flight! A direct flight may have one or more stops which can be as disastrous as a connection. Please make that correction!

  5. I have 3 kids, am a very lenient and relaxed parent but would NEVER do this. Yes chances are nothing will go wrong on a direct flight. But what about 9/11? What about a scenario where there is a disruptive passenger or weather or something that causes an emergency or unscheduled landing in a other city? What about a sudden drop in altitude or bad turbulence that really frightens your child? What if your child gets sick? I would never be comfortable sending a 5 year old to be by themself on a flight. Yes, someone from the airline is SUPPOSED to be in charge, but this is more at the end of the flight. It isn’t like they are sitting next to them. Please, please save your miles so you can fly with your child!

  6. @MrChu, direct with a stop is still better than a connection, but yes ideally you would choose a non-stop. Sorry if that was confusing.
    @Lisa, there are risks for sure, just like there are risks when traveling together. I don’t think the decision should be made primarily to save money/miles, but I honestly think there are some benefits to kids being able to do things like this as they get older. I’m not sure what the right age is, but certainly it is before a child turns 18. For some it might be 15, some it might be 12, some it might be 10, etc. I think it depends on the kid and the route. I do agree that 5 might not be the correct “magic” age.

  7. I flew as an unaccompanied minor from India to Frankfurt and back to India from the UK when I was 9 and I lived to tell the tale. I quite liked the extra attention I got!

    Kids don’t magically become mature at 18 – instead it is slow process to self reliance, though I do understand that it does vary by child.

  8. @mommypoints @mrchu I dunno, a lot of UA flights are “direct” and require “equipment changes.” Direct with a stop is still not ideal for a UM.

    Flying UM can be a blast when you’re young, and I’m glad my parents let me fly alone internationally twice before I turned 16.

  9. A few months ago our flight went mechanical on a 1-stop direct flight that stranded a very young unaccompanied minor. The stop was at a small town that only gets a couple of flights a day and it was the last flight out that day. Luckily there was a late-night inbound flight from the destination, so the airline flew in the parent to take custody of the minor for the overnight stay. The parents said they had no idea that the plane had a scheduled stop or they never would have booked it. I wonder what would have happened if the parent hadn’t been able to fly in that night…would the child have had to spend the night in the airport, or have an airport employee take her home with them for the night? Bad situation all around. So there are definitely risks when having your child travel alone, especially between smaller cities with limited flight options.

  10. As I’ve never been closely involved with an UM service, I’m just curious where the guardians are allowed to go with post 9/11 security rules. Can you go to the gate with your kid for drop-off and pickup, or do you have to stay ground side?

    Also, here’s an idea to see how the whole situation works out for the first time you send your kid on a plane unaccompanied. Book a separate ticket and board later without them seeing you. You can observe everything that goes on without the kid realizing you’re there. If there’s a major snafu, you’re close by to step in. If not, just hop on a return flight home with peace of mind.

  11. I flew unaccompanied ewr-lhr-bom on BA when I was 9 and I remember during the connection that they forgot me at the kids lounge. Luckily my parents had trained me well so I knew exactly when my flight was and I ended up not missing the connection. And on the way back they messed up my meal and didn’t have any vegetarian food for me. Even with all those screw ups I still had a blast and I wouldn’t hesitate sending my kids alone.

  12. Yes, the airlines screwed up in both of these cases. And in the US Airways case so did the parents IMO. Not being available and not explaining to the kids or equipping them to handle an irregularity wasn’t a good plan at all.

  13. I’m 17, and flew my first flight as an unaccompanied minor at the age of 11. My mom is an ex-airline employee, so I suppose that her knowledge of the system was a critical factor. That said, I flew a only non-stop flights, and had a working cell phone. Further, my family had enjoyed lots of domestic travel up to that point, so I had been through the airport routine several times and was confident. On my first UM flight, Delta employees were excellent and attentive the entire time.

    My parents felt that I was mature enough (at the age of 10) to handle this type of experience, with the help of airline employees. There isn’t a magic number for every kid,

    While it’s still a bit baffling that the 13-year old was denied boarding in the first place, it’s even more inexcusable that US Airways would even entertain the notion that these kids could stay in a hotel overnight. IMO, they should have called the parents, found other options to get them to their final destination, or have sent them back to the originating airport with the promise to try again the next day.

    To parents: As a kid who’s been able to enjoy all that travel has to offer, I would encourage you to let your kids have this freedom, within reason, of course. Start off slow, manage expectations, and always be vigilant. Having built up a level of trust with my parents is the best thing I could have done for myself, it’s allowed me to have some really great experiences.

  14. @thrashsoundly Usually, one parent is allowed a security pass to go through security and to the gate with their child. Many airlines also encourage parents to stay airside until the flight takes off.

  15. I like the idea of kids getting the chance of some “independence” though I think age 5 is just far too young. I can’t see I’d do this without a really good reason and going to see granda in Kansas does not qualify.

    • I agree that five may not be the magic number. It is somewhere between 5 and 18, and the “magic number” will vary from person to person. It went just fine for me at 5, but that doesn’t mean that is the exact age we will choose for our daughter. Regardless of what age you choose, I do think that many kids will be ready far before they leave the house for college.

  16. I’m pretty sure my parents put my sister and me on our first flight unaccompanied when I was about 6 or 7 and my sister was about 4 or 5. Rules were probably different back then! We loved it, and I’ve had a lifelong love of travel as a result of my experiences.

    I will definitely let my daughter fly unaccompanied in a few years, but probably not that young. I’m guessing 8 or 9 years old is probably the magic number for a nonstop flight; maybe 11 or 12 for connections.

    The summer of the Atlanta Olympics, I was 16 and was stranded returning from an international trip with a student group and that was a truly scary experience. Once we landed in the US together, all of us flew on different connections to various US cities, and I was alone when my flight was eventually cancelled. Since I was 16, I was not considered an unaccompanied minor, but the airline employees recognized my youth and were fairly helpful anyway. I ended up making it to my first stop late that night – Atlanta – where the airline put me up in a hotel so I could make the final connection the next morning. Moments after my flight landed, the bomb in Olympic Park went off. No one knew was the story was at that point, and I ended up spending the night in Atlanta as a lonely teenager worried about possible airline terrorism for my flight out the next morning! Frightening to say the least but I learned a lot of self-reliance that trip that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

  17. “Assuming my kiddo continues on the path to being a trust-worthy child, she will likely fly by herself to her grandparents’ house in Kansas in just a few years.” I know you didn’t mention a specific age, but it sounds like your daughter will be very young since you said a few years. And she may be trust-worthy but I guess I would worry about the other passengers. And all the other potential issues that @Lisa brought up (turbulence, disruptive passenger, unscheduled landing, etc)! It is true that the flight attendants don’t have the time to sit with your child the entire time during the flight. So keep that in mind when determining your child’s appropriate age. I am more inclined to say 12 years old for my kids, as most of us know there is no “magic number.”
    PS – most airlines require, not suggest, that the parent/guardian remains at the airport until the flight is airborne.

  18. “Any parents that send kids off to fly by themselves are idiots.” Or forced to do so after a divorce.

    Alot depends on knowing the kiddo and whether he/she will follow instructions or take off the identification (lanyard/bird band) to slip the leash.

  19. Between the age of 7 and 16, my parents would send me off to Japan for the summer to visit my grandparents every year. Maybe my experience would be different than others since I only flew JAL or ANA and the Japanese are known for their customer service, but it was awesome and I never had any problems. The best part was that they would usually put me up in a business class seat and a couple of flights were in first class even though I was only on an economy ticket. I can still remember sitting in a first class eat and since I was so young, my legs wouldn’t even bend at the knees since the seat was so big.

  20. @AlohaDaveKennedy
    forced? now i’m not really sure that word is at all appropriate. was there a gun to your head?

    my stance on children on an airplane is no-one under 10, attended or not. for unattended travel, even 10 might be too young. airline employees are strangers, would you trust a complete stranger to take care of your 10 year old child? not in a million years. and lets not forget the countless weirdos any FF has seen over the years.

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