United Changes Unaccompanied Minor Rules – No Connections

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Last month United changed the rules when it comes to which flights unaccompanied minors can take.  They decided that unaccompanied minors (children ages 5+ who are not accompanied on the aircraft by a parent, legal guardian, or someone at least 18 years old) would only be permitted to travel on nonstop itineraries – no connections allowed.  United requires children 5-11 who are traveling alone to pay the $150 fee each direction and use the unaccompanied minor service, but children who are 12-17 can travel as “adults” without the unaccompanied minor service.

American Airlines and Delta both still allow unaccompanied minors to utilize a connection, as long as it is not the last flight of the day on that route.  Delta charges $100 for the service, and requires that unaccompanied minors to be at least 8 years old for a connection.  The flight has to be on Delta, Delta Connection (excluding American Eagle), Air France, or a KLM flights.  American also permits unaccompanied minors who are at least 8 years old to utilize a connection, but it must be on an American operated flight.  Like Delta, they also charge $100 for their unaccompanied minor service.

I know that some families rely on the unaccompanied minor service to get their kids from Point A to Point B on their own either due to a divorce with parents living in different locations, to get to summer camp, to visit grandparents, etc.  My own first flight was as an unaccompanied minor at 5 years old, and I remember being excited, not scared.  My daughter is four right now and I don’t think I will be putting her on a flight as an unaccompanied minor at five years old, but I like to think I would trust her enough to do that if she wants at some point in the next several years.  I think that (limited) freedom and the ability to do things independently is something that should be eased into, not forbid until you are 18 years old.

Unaccompanied Minor

My first flight at 5 years old

That being said, I usually don’t even book connections for my own family unless there is absolutely no other way in the world to get where we are going.  Connections dramatically increase the likelihood of problems.  Unaccompanied minors must have their guardians stay at the gate until the plane is wheels-up, so a delayed flight wouldn’t leave them stranded and under the care of the airline if their itinerary is non-stop, but if that happened on a connection then they would be in a strange place without anyone they know.  Throw in a pinch of extra bad luck and they could end up having to spend the night at the airport with an airline representative if the delay at their connection point got severe enough.  That is not a good situation for anyone involved.

There have been stories that pop up in the news about unaccompanied minors who get “lost” by the airline or end up stranded along the way to their scheduled destination due to cancellations.  United made the news for this in 2012, and most recently US Airways made the news by involuntarily bumping a 13 year old (who was not traveling as a registered unaccompanied minor).  This story took an even more bizarre turn when that bump resulted in the airline giving the 13 year old and their 16 year old sibling a voucher to stay at the airport hotel by themselves.

When I wrote about those incidents I recommended only putting unaccompanied minors on non-stop flights to dramatically reduce the likelihood of problems such as those.  Sure even a non-stop a flight can have to divert to a different airport, but I think it is your job as a parent to do all you reasonably can to reduce the chance that your child will be stuck in a strange location.  You can’t control everything, but you can increase the likelihood of a successful itinerary by booking flights early in the day that are non-stop flights.  Honestly, I don’t think this is a bad change by United, but I also have the luxury of not needing to rely on the UM services.  Though I do have to wonder why United charges more for their UM service than some competitors who still offer the option of connections.

Obviously not being able to utilize connections for unaccompanied minors on United means that those who live in, or travel to, non-hub locations will have some real issues when trying to use this service.  They will either have to travel to a hub to travel, or will need to look to either American or Delta for unaccompanied minor services.  Or, you can just have the parents take turns traveling with the kids.  Sure that is extra time and expense, but since United charges $300 round trip for their unaccompanied minor services anyway, it may not be too much added cost to simply fly with your child on a more complicated itinerary.  Once the kid is old enough to not have to use the UM service (12 years old on United), they can travel on whatever itinerary you choose….but I would still be wary of including connections.

What do you think about this change by United?  If you rely on UM services does this change impact how you will get your kids from Point A to Point B.

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  1. Southwest also requires that UM’s be on a nonstop or same-plane service. However given Southwest’s route structure that makes the policy much easier to deal with.

  2. I’m surprised by UA’s policy for several reasons.

    First, $150 ow is an awful lot to charge for an unaccompanied minor — especially if you’re going to limit their travel to nonstop flights. It’s almost like they don’t want the business, and maybe they don’t.

    On the other hand, allowing 12 year olds to fly unaccompanied — especially on connecting flights — seems like a very, very bad idea to me. I have a 12 year old, who has probably flown more than 99.99% of 12 year olds in the world. I would be extremely reluctant to put her on a connecting flight by herself. Even in the best of circumstances, connecting flights could be confusing for a child and irregular opps would be a real challenge. Through the magic of cell phones, I could probably talk her (and the airline) through it, but what exactly does UA plan to do with a 12-year old who misses their connection and gets stuck someplace? I assume (hope?) an unaccompanied minor “program” would then kick in?

    Just weird, IMO. UA should offer more guidance on this situation and, perhaps, modify their policy.

  3. I can understand why some parents will hate the new policy, but I think it’s a wise move on United’s part. There are just too many chances for irrops these days – and more chances that an irrops can leave a passenger stranded for days rather than just overnight, now that so many flights are flying full. While I’m sure many children do just fine unaccompanied on connecting flights when everything goes well, I don’t think most of the pre-adolescent set cope as well if things go wrong. Better to be safe. Let them learn to cope with connecting flights when they’re in their teens.

  4. Basically UA has done the math and realized they weren’t making any money on charging $100 each way. Especially with the extra paperwork and manpower required. Other airlines may see this as a necessary service like say providing for disabled passengers, but remember United is much more transaction and cost focused these days. If it helps them turn a profit why not.

  5. I think it makes sense also. Our 14 year daughter has flown nonstop alone a couple of times starting at age 11 and we paid the fee even after she was at the age when we didn’t have to, just for peace of mind. Our daughter too has flown extensively domestically and internationally. Like Mommy Points, I do everything possible to avoid a change even when we are all traveling, but would never put our daughter on anything but a nonstop alone until she was much closer to being an adult. If you fly a lot, you know too many things can go wrong!

  6. You briefly mentioned AA’s policy. I had a frustrated experience with them on Monday. Our flight with AA from Shanghai to LAX was delayed by 6 hours, therefore we won’t make the connecting flight to SFO. My husband and I and 3 kids were booked on the same flights but under seperate reservations (using miles for first class). AA somehow rebooked 4 of us on same flights but decided to keep my 14 yr old in shanghai for another day ALONE! Just what on earth were they thinking? Their second offer was to fly her out with us, but have her fly alone to SFO on the 8pm flight while we were on the 6am flight! They also wouldn’t swap her with my husband. What a mess they created!

  7. My little brother and I used to fly “unaccompanied” to grandparents all the time – and we *had* to connect through Dallas or Houston because we lived in a little podunk Texas town. As soon as I was 12, my dad gave me a calling card and $20 to buy my brother (then 10) and I lunch at IAH and put us on the plane, expecting me to make our connection. I don’t know that the brain power of a 12 yr old has changed significantly in the last 20 years, but I was confident I could make the connection, that I knew how to use dad’s calling card if needed (this was *way* before cell phones!), and obviously, my dad was confident too to let us go.

    • Mom, I think a lot has changed, including airline operations and customer service. My parents put me on a plane as a UM at age 5 for fun. That sounds crazy now. However, at 12 you can still fly as an adult with a connection.

  8. Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, the idea of putting a 12-year-old on a connecting flight unaccompanied in 2014 is more than a little troubling.

    Like let’s say you’re not an idiot and don’t book the kid on the last connecting flights of the day. But when they miss their connection, the airline says all the other connecting flights are sold out for the day. Do you want your 12-year-old to have to handle this problem? And what do they do if the kid has to spend the night at the hub city hotel because there’s no flight until tomorrow? Do they give them a hotel voucher (hopefully, what if it’s weather?) and tell them to come back to the airport tomorrow?

    I think UA needs to think this through a bit more, and tell parents what they’ll do if “the worst” happens (which isn’t all that remote a possibility).

  9. I started flying unaccompanied when I was about 12 in the eighties. Luckily, I never encountered any “situations”. I probably even had less than $20 to my name, but with family on each end to pick me up. The prices they charge are high, but if anything goes wrong the airlines are not really equipped to do extensive childcare so they should charge a lot. Last week my husband couldn’t get home on a West Coast to West Coast flight because of all of the Eastern frigid temps and delays. I sure wouldn’t want that to have been my child, but when you fly you take risks. Life is risky.

  10. That United price seems high. If the first time you put a kid on a plane by themselves is to go to college, you’ll have a nervous breakdown. Baby steps. I have flown my kids as UM several times, and this year will be the first year I have to send my 13 year old on a connecting flight NOT as a UM. One way only, and I’m nervous. But if not now, then when? I want him to know I have confidence in him. And if you think I’m not calling his cell phone and talking to him during that connection time, you’re crazy. I can just imagine him sitting at the gate and getting engrossed in a book or game and still missing his flight:) I’ve also got friends in the connecting city that are on hold, should anything go wrong. God help me and my nerves:)

  11. Should be 15 years old on ALL airlines. A 12 year old to fend for themselves is just TOO scary. Bad things can happen in a 3 hour layover to get to the connecting flight. HOW DO WE CHANGE THIS??????

  12. Cath, I would say just don’t book flights for your own children that you don’t feel comfortable with. Much easier than worrying about changing an airlines rules.

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