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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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.