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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.
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.