Ten-year-old Lauren Economou wasn't the least bit nervous as she waited for her connecting flight. She was flying across the country by herself, home to San Diego after a visit to her grandparents in Connecticut, but she was prepared for every contingency. Her blue gym bag was stocked with a family of tiny troll dolls, a hand-held video game, art supplies and plenty of snacks and gum.
"The gum really helps with the pressure on your ears," Lauren explained knowledgeably, adding that "Kids shouldn't be scared fly alone at all."
"Just bring a lot of stuff to do," piped in 11-year-old Jessica Reiff, who was en route from Minneapolis with her brother Dylan to meet their grandparents in Philadelphia.
And plenty to eat, said 14-year-old Dylan Reiff, pointing out that there's just never enough food on planes -- at least for a growing boy.
These children were among the two dozen or so who were comfortably spending their layover at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago one recent morning playing cards, drinking pop, telling jokes and watching movies in a room set up this summer by United Airlines at several hub airports just for this purpose. United hopes to keep unaccompanied youngsters connecting through major cities happy -- and safe.
While parents undoubtedly worry about everything that might go wrong, the children act as if it's no big deal to travel on their own coast-to-coast. Maybe that's because so many of them do it routinely: Airlines estimate that hundreds of thousands of children -- as young as 5 -- are now flying unaccompanied every year across the country and abroad.
(For a handy Flying Alone pamphlet full of practical tips from the American Automobile Association, send a self-addressed, stamped legal-sized envelope to Flying Alone, Mail Stop 800, 1000 AAA Drive, Heathrow, Fla. 32746-5063.)
So many children are flying this summer that Delta has opened staffed "Dusty's Dens." Eight airports provide these toy-stocked places for unaccompanied minors, as well as parents awaiting flights with their children. (Open until Labor Day; call  392-KIDS for information about how to enroll children in Delta's Fantastic Flyer program, qualifying them for discounts.)
Some airlines charge nothing for supervising the youngsters until they are picked up by the designated adult at the other end, if the children are flying nonstop and are under 12. (Those between 5 and 8 may only fly on direct flights.) Other airlines, United among them, have begun charging $30 for the service.
But even parents of young teens -- who may travel without any escort -- prefer the peace of mind that paying the fee and having their child identified as an unaccompanied minor ensures.
"It provides a sense of security for David, especially if a flight is delayed," explains Darlene Greenhaw, a Virginia sales executive whose 12-year-old son flies frequently on his own to his dad's home in Florida. Her advice: Make sure the child knows exactly what to expect, from how long the flight and layover will last to who's meeting him at the other end.
Airline officials, meanwhile, ask parents to tell teens to identify themselves to flight attendants if their planes are delayed or diverted. The attendants will make sure they're fed and housed appropriately.
The other morning at O'Hare, United's Lyn Dade looked on with approval at the bustling scene in the airline's kids' room, brightly decorated with children's drawings on the windows. One group of boys was playing the card game Uno with the staff; some girls were watching a movie. A few children sat bent over their video games, while others were engrossed in magazines. The mood was relaxed and jovial.
zTC Ms. Dade is the customer service supervisor charged with making sure things stay that way as these children pass through O'Hare. Of course, there are glitches. Ms. Dade's managed sick children and warring divorced parents. One night recently, when the Midwest was plagued with thunderstorms, Ms. Dade set up two supervised "dorms" at the airport for 55 stranded young travelers. "It was like a giant pajama party," she said.
Her advice: Book a direct flight when possible and avoid the last flight of the day. Pack a sweat shirt and lunch in their backpacks. Send along some spending money in case they want to watch a pay-movie during the flight or buy a treat at the airport. And make sure the proper paperwork is filed. "You wouldn't believe how many surprises we get each day, kids we weren't expecting," she said.
Each summer, Ms. Dade hires and trains 75 college students as escorts-cum-counselors to help entertain these passengers and get them to and from the proper gates -- no small task at an airport the size of O'Hare. In one day, as many as 500 unaccompanied youngsters may connect through O'Hare, and their numbers are growing each year, as children cross the country to visit divorced parents, relatives or friends during holidays.
For some, it's as routine as getting on a school bus.
Just ask David Greenhaw. "I've flown 100 times by myself," boasted the seventh-grader.
He's probably not that far off, said his mother Darlene later from her home. David has been flying alone since he was 5, she explained. Just this summer, in addition to his trip to the Midwest, he's flown to Florida and Pennsylvania.
"He thinks it's a blast," said his mom, who doesn't let David
leave without every emergency phone number and a promise to call as soon as he gets off the plane.