May 21, 2007

Should Junior fly alone?

Some parents are hesitant, but when it becomes a must, here's what to do

Your children are going to camp far from home this summer, but you can't get off work or justify the expense of an extra plane ticket just to fly them there. Should you trust the airlines to take care of them if they fly alone?

Given the well-publicized difficulties in commercial air travel -- with ever-shifting security rules and, earlier this year, passengers stuck on grounded planes -- some parents simply won't consider it.

"Some families don't have a choice," said Michelle Bisnoff, a mother of two from Orange County, Calif., "but how can anyone trust the overall situation for their kids, much less hand off the light of their life to underpaid flight attendants from close-to-bankrupt airlines, who have a full-time job once they are in the air, and it's not watching your kid?"

"No way," she concluded. "I'd be a nervous wreck."

Yet many children between 5 and 14 years old fly alone each year, with most airlines charging fees to take them. JetBlue flew more than 40,000 unaccompanied minors last year, with most traveling during June, July and August. American Airlines flies roughly 200,000 a year. Southwest (one of the few that charge no fee) takes more than 100,000.

Each airline has its own set of rules. In general, airlines promise to escort unaccompanied minors onto their flights and release them to the properly designated person upon arrival.

But the airlines' assistance is far from baby-sitting service. Children must be at least 5 years old to fly alone. Three or four different airline employees may take responsibility for a minor during one trip -- shuffling the child from airline workers at the departing city to flight attendants on the plane to other employees at the destination. And they are typically barred from care-taking tasks like giving your child medicine.

To increase the chances that unaccompanied children won't be stranded somewhere, they are rarely accepted on the last flight of the day. And some airlines will turn them away if the weather is threatening.

After the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, most domestic carriers stopped allowing unaccompanied children 8 and younger to take connecting flights, and most now continue to allow them only on nonstop or direct flights. A few carriers, including US Airways, JetBlue and Southwest, won't accept unaccompanied minors of any age on connecting flights.

The cost for children flying alone has been going up. American raised its fee to $75 from $60 in March. Continental raised its fees between $5 and $20 last year and now charges $50 on nonstop domestic flights and $95 on connecting flights.

For many parents, knowing someone is looking out for their children is well worth the cost. "It would be so scary if your child ended up in another city somewhere and no one really knew," said Melissa Babcock, a mother of two from Kenilworth, Ill., whose son Will, now 15, has been flying solo since he was 11.

For teenagers, most airlines will provide unaccompanied minor service for the usual fee, but don't require it.

When sending children off on solo flights, be sure they have a copy of the itinerary in case something goes awry. A cell phone or phone card with important phone numbers is a good idea, so that your child can easily contact you if problems occur. And be sure to remain at the airport until the flight has departed -- not just left the gate. At domestic airports, most airlines will provide a gate pass to parents so that they can accompany the child through security and to the gate.


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