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Flying solo – Should your child fly alone?

Writer Mary Pat Mahoney offers some tips to preparing your child for flying solo!

An adventure to remember
Five-year-old Erica is on her first airplane trip to visit her grandparents. She’s excited, she’s ready to go, and she’s alone. Erica is one of the hundreds of thousands of kids who fly by themselves. Southwest Airlines had more than 250,000 unaccompanied children fly last year, and it’s easy to see why. Air travel is fast and safe. With the competition for customers, there are plenty of bargains for parents who want children to visit extended family, friends or attend a special summer camp.

But before packing up a child and heading to the airport, parents should do their homework. Most of the time, the flight will go smoothly, but even when the skies are clear at home, mechanical break downs and sudden bad weather can disrupt travel plans. A well-prepared child and well-informed parent will be prepared for clear or stormy skies.

The unaccompanied child
Airlines call a child who flies alone an unaccompanied minor (UM). Generally, a child must be five years old to fly alone, and each airline has its own policies, restrictions and requirements, which sometimes vary greatly.

Southwest Airlines, United and US Airways allow children between five and 11 to fly unaccompanied. American and Delta want kids up to age fourteen to fly as a UM’s. On some airlines a 13 year old is considered an adult and could fly with a child under five. Other airlines use the restrictions that apply to the younger child when two or more UM’s travel together.

Cloudy skies
Airlines try their best to make sure each flight is a pleasant one, but bad weather and mechanical problems can occur. If it looks like weather could divert a UM’s flight, the airline may decide to rebook on another flight before the child even boards the plane. If a change is made after the UM is already in the air, the airline will attempt to contact the parents or the person meeting the plane. For that reason, parents and pick-up persons should provide the airline with cell, home and work phone numbers.

Once the child boards the plane, he is in the care of a flight attendant. If it is a non-stop flight, the flight attendant will transfer the child to the adult waiting at the arrival city. If the child will be making a connection to another flight, the flight attendant will accompany the child to the gate agent or airport employee who will then take the child to the appropriate gate. There should be an adult airline or airport employee with the child at all times. Depending on the number of legs on the trip, the child may be under the care of several different adults.

If the child will be spending some time in the airport, the airline may have special kid-friendly lounges for UM’s. These may not be in every airport or available from every airline. The reservation agent will know if there is one in the airport a child is traveling through.

The flight plan
When is a child ready to fly alone? Parents are the best judges of that. Is the child comfortable around strangers? Is she able to keep track of her belongings, follow directions and entertain herself quietly for extended periods of time? The responsibility that goes along with flying alone can give kids a great sense of independence and confidence. But, if a child is unsure of herself, shy or scared, flying can be a frightening experience.

Parents can help alleviate some anxiety by preparing the child ahead of time. Like so many other parenting situations, children pick up on their parents’ feelings. “My two boys have been flying alone for seven years,” says Jill C of Colleyville, Texas. “They didn’t give fear any thought because I didn’t.”

The child should know what will happen at the airport, through security, on the plane and at the destination. If he’ll be changing planes, parents need to stress that he follows the directions of the flight attendant or gate agent.

Linda Hochester of Southwest Airlines recommends parents role play with their child before the flight, “A lot of times kids won’t ask a question once they’re around someone they don’t know.” Especially when it is the child’s first flight, role playing helps kids know what to expect before they begin their adventure,” she says.

Choosing the flight’s departure time crucial. Flights early in the day offer the most flexibility. Airlines won’t let a UM fly on the last flight of the day and for good reason. If a flight is delayed or canceled, “back up” flights may be unavailable resulting in a greater chance that a child could be stranded.

On the day of travel, parents should allow extra time at the airport to fill out paperwork and pass through security. Some airlines ask parents and UM’s to arrive three hours ahead of time. The reservation agent can provide that information. Parents can go through security to the gate with their child but won’t be able to board the plane with them.

Peggy Estes, spokeswoman for Delta, reminds parents to be sure to have proper identification for their children if they’re traveling internationally. “Some countries require special documentation, such as a notarized letter, stating that the child has permission to fly alone,” she says. The reservations agent will know what special documents are needed when the flight is booked.

Fee to fly
Not all airlines charge a UM service fee, but many do. Charges range from $40 up to $90 each way depending on whether the flight is domestic or international and if there are connecting flights. If two or more children are flying together, the fee is usually charged just once.

Happy landings
Airlines ask parents to stay at the gate until the plane has pulled away from the gate since mechanical problems or weather delays could result in passengers deplaning. The plane should be well on its way before adults leave the gate.

There should have a back up plan (or two) for picking up the child at the destination. The child should have names and phone numbers of the persons he may need to call. “Include a cell phone number in the passenger record,” says Estes, “for contacts at the departing city and the arrival city.”

Likewise, the person picking up the child at the arrival city should allow plenty of time to get through security and to the gate.

When your child is ready to fly alone, you have every reason to expect it will be a positive experience. A little bit of preparation and careful planning can make it an opportunity for your child to spread his wings and fly!

Airline web sites
Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air:
American Airlines:
Continental Airlines:
Northwest Airlines:
Southwest Airlines:

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