By PlanetFeedback.com Staff
Holidays and summer vacations are ripe times for countless children to fly by themselves to distant cities to visit relatives, divorced parents and friends.
If you think flying as an adult is scary, think how frightening it can be for a little one to hop a plane. Policies differ from carrier to carrier, but airlines try to make trips for youngsters who are flying by themselves as easy, safe and fun as possible.
Typically, children 5-11 can travel on their own if they are booked on non-stop flights. Children generally must be at least 8 if a connecting flight is involved. Children 1-5 can sometimes fly, but only if they travel with someone who is at least 12.
No matter what the minor's age, airlines insist that a child be met at the destination airport by a pre-designated adult. Carriers are quite strict about checking identification to ensure the right person is given custody of the youngster (especially because of legal concerns over custody battles by divorced or separated parents).
Be sure to talk to individual airlines about their rules for transporting unaccompanied minors. Some carries are more child-friendly than others. For example, some charge an "escort" fee (at least $20) coming and going.
Despite these precautions, "my suggestion would be to not have any kid travel under 10 by themselves," says Deb Cornick, publisher of Have Children Will Travel, an online travel publication for parents. "If they do, they should be at least 8 or 9 years old. And then make sure it's a short trip with no connections. I've heard just too many horror stories about children being let loose in the airport and not being supervised."
In the air, flight attendants are not designed to be babysitters, she points out. They are busy with flight duties. They can't always give unaccompanied minors the special attention parents hope they'll receive.
While many people think a pre-teen still needs supervision, airlines deem a child a flying adult at age 12. For concerned parents who'd rather embarrass their children (even older teens) than expose them to airport dangers, some airlines offer a fee-based service to escort youthful customers to connecting gates.
Tell the reservations agent when you book the flight that it's for an "unaccompanied minor." Don't wait until you get to the check-in counter on the day of the flight.
Book a nonstop flight or a flight that doesn't require changing planes.
Provide detailed flight information to the person meeting your child at the final destination.
When you get your child's ticket, make sure it is correct, from beginning to end of the trip. Talk about the ticket with your child and find a safe place to keep it. Explain how the ticket will be needed for the return flight or as a receipt.
Visit the airport ahead of time to squelch pre-flight fears. Introduce the child to uniformed airlines people; point out places to go for help.
Pack quiet portable games, earphone-style media players (no radios), books, etc. for the flight. Send along a favorite snack; many flights don't serve meals or "kid-friendly" fare.
On the big day, don't rush the experience. Arrive at the airport 45 to 60 minutes early to check luggage, do paperwork (bring a birth certificate or other proof of age), clear security and get the child's boarding pass. Check the luggage claim ticket and luggage tag; both should show the same destination.
Make sure your child has an ID card and a small amount of cash for phone calls, emergencies and food.
Make sure the airline's flight information matches the information on your child's ticket (i.e., correct airport and flight number). Double check that the complete name, address and work/home phone numbers are given for the person meeting your child on the other end.
Stay with your child until boarding time (airlines require it). Stay in the gate area until the flight takes off.
Tell the child to stay "glued" to the flight attendant who's in charge of walking him/her off the plane. Let your child know that another airline employee may step in and supervise him/her for part of the trip. Explain that your child may have to wait in a special room until the designated adult picks him/her up at the airport.
Drill home this crucial rule with a child who's flying solo: Never leave the airport alone or with a stranger! If the child needs help, tell him/her to approach only uniformed airlines employees or airport police.