When it costs double to let your 12-year-old fly alone

This is a tale of two flights and one 12-year-old who wanted to fly on her own between New York City and Chicago a few weeks after her birthday. 

Both flights were around $300. On American, she would have to fly as an unaccompanied minor and pay an additional $150 each way. Next year, too, and the year after that, until she turned 15.  

On Southwest, however, she would not be required to use the unaccompanied minor service, saving money. She would not have to wear a lanyard with her boarding pass inside or a bracelet that would help track her location, or check in repeatedly with airline staff. So the 12-year-old, who happens to be my daughter, traveled on the normal fare instead of double that and finished her trip uneventfully over winter vacation.  

Airline fee outrage is a consumer trope, but it is rare that a single fee can double your cost and rarer still when the rules seem to reflect a fundamental disagreement about child development and risk.  

So what gives?  

Delta and United have rules nearly identical to American’s. I pick on American only because I’ve tried to fly that airline exclusively for 25 years in pursuit of lifetime elite status, and I was hoping to pass those habits on to my offspring. But in this case, the extra $300 or so made the choice to encourage disloyalty pretty easy.  

First, about that fee. There is at least some cost to keeping track of a child traveling alone. Frontier, on its website, does a good job of breaking down the elements of the service. Both the adults dropping children off and picking them up need passes to get to the gates. Agents at both ends need to monitor the child, and flight attendants need to keep track, too. Airlines may have special rooms for unaccompanied minors at hub airports, and other personnel may have to devote some work time to mark a child’s journey.  

But does that actually cost $150 each way? American defends the price only by noting that it is competitive with what Delta and United charge. Even Southwest, which charges $50 each way for unaccompanied minors (required for children 5 through 11) and is historically quite careful about costs, could not provide an itemized breakdown of unit costs or profitability.  

“We look at it every year and evaluate the costs of the service versus our costs to implement and manage it, and for the time being, we’re satisfied,” said Fred Taylor Jr., Southwest’s liaison to the federal Department of Transportation’s aviation consumer protection division.  

At $50 each way, is Southwest’s fee a money loser? “We don’t look at it as a method to generate revenue, just as a way to offset the cost to provide the service,” Taylor said. He added that in the grand scheme of things, the revenue was minute compared with plenty of other things the carrier measured.  

Those $150 fees are not minute, however, if your divorce means that you’re suddenly paying for two homes instead of one, and one child or more have to travel by air between homes on school vacations. Then, it starts to feel punitive.  

Now, to the age rules. American’s 15-and-up rule for fee-free solo flyers comes courtesy of its integration with US Airways, which had the stricter rule before the airlines combined.  

Southwest’s 12-and-up policy has been in place for a long while. Did the airline round up a bunch of teachers and child psychologists before determining that once you turned 12 you were perfectly capable of flying on your own? Does it know for a fact, or firmly believe, that American, Delta and United are being too protective?  

Well, not exactly. Southwest, according to Taylor, grants 12-year-olds solo travel privileges because no parent has ever complained and no groundswell has emerged demanding that it increase the minimum age. In fact, sometimes parents show up with 10- or 11-year-olds hoping that the kids can hop on solo while passing for 12 without paying unaccompanied minor fees. (Don’t try this, as the airline reserves the right to ask to see a copy of a birth certificate.)  

Most airlines also give you the choice to keep paying the fees for older teenagers to remain under the watchful eyes of airline staff.  

Southwest’s lower age requirement is reasonable, said Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids” and president of Let Grow, which helps adults encourage children to do more everyday things on their own, sooner. “I think everyone who thinks about this knows that 12-year-olds can walk to and from security to the boarding gate,” she said. She has also spent years trying to talk parents out of disproportional concern about crimes committed against children, which have generally fallen in recent decades.  

To parents who are not sure if their 12-year-old is ready for truly independent travel on Southwest, Taylor asks these questions: Is the child comfortable enough not to be frightened by any given set of circumstances that could come up? A mechanical issue? An unruly customer? “It’s not all blue skies and rainbows out there,” he said.  

Indeed, what gives some parents pause is the possibility of a diversion — when a plane lands someplace other than its origin or destination airport and the child has to spend the night there. How often does that happen, and what happens to minors in that situation?  

For the year that ended in October, 22 of every 10,000 flights were diverted on average, according to the Department of Transportation. But many of those flights (it’s not clear how many, and American and Southwest could not provide data, either) did not require an overnight stay at the unexpected stop because the planes eventually took off again and got where they were going. And many of those that did stay over in some third city did not have children traveling alone on board.  

Still, stuff happens, as Thursday’s powerful storm proved. Most carriers try to keep unaccompanied minors off the last flights of the day. Indeed, I worried a bit about this as my daughter’s early-evening flight home from Chicago was delayed for hours, even though we had rehearsed a sort-of Buffalo scenario in which she ended up on the ground in a city between Chicago and New York where no one we knew could go pick her up. It involved first calling us on her cellphone, the existence of which makes solo flying more comfortable for everyone. 

My mind also wandered to Susan Burton’s poignant segment on the radio program “This American Life,” about being snowed in at O’Hare with other children of divorce when she was younger, which is the very next thing you should listen to on whatever device you have nearby.  

When things do go awry, Taylor said, Southwest will not take kids out of the airport and will instead keep watch over them through the wee hours. If my 12-year-old had been in that situation even outside its unaccompanied minor service, she would have been free to hang out with the kids whose parents had paid the fee, but could also have left the airport on her own. My wife and I probably would have told her to stay rather than trying to find a hotel room late at night.  

A spokesman for American, Ross Feinstein, offered more options for the airline’s younger travelers. He said it would try to call parents and see if they wanted their kids to go to a hotel, perhaps with an airline staff member staying next door or even in the same room if the family was comfortable with that. 

For all of Skenazy’s professional bravado, she gets that diversions are a part of life. Maybe even a good part, the part where the kids wander around the terminal and eat caramel corn for dinner instead of the emergency sandwich in their bag and then band together with strangers to make the best of a bad situation.  

“When I ask people about their best childhood memories, it’s often about when something went wrong,” she said. “When you’re thrown off your game and you handle it, it’s the wind beneath your wings for evermore.”

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