Recently, an unaccompanied 15-year-old traveling from London to meet his grandparents in France was bumped from an oversold easyJet flight and essentially treated as an adult, left to deal with rebooking on his own, according to a report by the BBC.
Though the episode ended with the boy taking a flight 10 hours later, it shows a weakness in a system intended to care for children unaccustomed to advocating for themselves.
Experts emphasize the importance of educating children before their trip. “Even if it’s an older teen flying to soccer camp, they need to learn to speak up and explain that they’re 16 and on their own and can’t be stranded in an airport,” said Eileen Ogintz, who has the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. “Play the what-if game. What if you’re canceled? What if you’re diverted? What if you’re stranded?”
Even when children are adequately prepared, the protocol for flying solo is not uniform. Because there are no federal Transportation Department regulations for unaccompanied minors, airlines create their own policies, beginning with who can fly. Here are guidelines established by various airlines, and tips for preparing your child for traveling without an adult.
Many American carriers offer services for children designated solo flyers, including select seats and escorts on and off the plane and to connecting gates. Most airlines consider solo flyers from ages 5 to 15 as unaccompanied minors, though Southwest Airlines puts the upper limit at 11 and JetBlue Airways at 13. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines make the designation optional for children 15 to 17. (For those ages, parents can let the kids fly without designating them unaccompanied minors and forfeit the additional care.) It is optional on Alaska Airlines for passengers 13 to 17.
Additional fees also vary. It costs $25 each way for direct flights on Alaska and $50 for one-way flights involving connections. Southwest charges $50; JetBlue, $100 one way. American, Delta and United Airlines all charge $150 each way.
Different fees may apply to children traveling together. American charges one unaccompanied minor fee for parties of two or more, and Delta charges one fee for up to four children. For those fees, children usually get a seat near the front. Airline agents escort minors on and off the plane, and to connecting gates.
Not all flights are available to children traveling alone. Many carriers limit younger children to nonstop or direct flights. Delta allows 8- to 14-year-olds to make connections, aided by an employee. American allows connections with an escort between flights at several of its busier airports.
At the check-in desk, parents with government-issued identification can obtain a pass that allows them to escort the minor to the gate. Some airlines require them to stay at the airport until the plane has taken off; most experts advise doing so in case there is a delay or problem. On arrival, most airlines will issue a gate pass to the person designated to pick up the minor, allowing that person to meet the child at the gate.
To better track solo minors, Delta has instituted a system that relies on bar-coded wristbands that are scanned at various way points. The airline has said it intends to make that data available to parents and custodians.
Experts recommend parents prepare children as they would themselves, including sending them off with identification such as a birth certificate or a passport. Pack a water bottle to fill after clearing security; entertainment, like books or a tablet, with an extra battery booster; a sweater for chilly flights; and food.
“Send the equivalent of a school lunch,” Ogintz of Taking the Kids said. “Chances are there’s not much food.”
Before leaving, position the trip as an adventure. Rainer Jenss, the president and founder of the Family Travel Association, a group that advocates travel as educational, suggests involving children in planning flights to make them feel empowered, and accentuating the positives.
“Emphasize how they can now be trusted and how grown up they are,” Jenss said. “Talk about how fun flying is. How they can get somewhere so fast without having to go on a long, boring car ride.”
Finally, just because children can fly solo does not mean all of them should. “If they’re truly nervous, wait until they’re older,” Ogintz said. “Or if you’re paying $150 each way in fees, it might make sense to pay for a niece to go with them and fly back.”