Clutching their teddy bears and backpacks, children as young as 5 are flying unaccompanied across the United States in ever-increasing numbers.

These pint-size travelers take to the skies especially at spring break and in summer, with many of them traveling between parents who are divorced and live in different places. Children also travel solo to visit other relatives and friends or go to summer camp.

Each airline sets its own rules on unaccompanied children. But all require parents or guardians to fill out a form authorizing who may pick them up at their destination, and that person must show identification. Most airlines charge a fee of about $30 each way for unaccompanied children, on top of the ticket price.

Generally, 5- to 7-year-olds can travel unaccompanied on nonstop or direct flights, and 8- to 11-year-olds can travel alone on connecting flights; airline staff escort them between flights and to the people picking them up.

Children 12 and up are treated as adults, although on request some airlines will provide an escort for teens. Other transportation services, such as Greyhound and Amtrak, also take unaccompanied children.

Most flight attendants and airport staff do their best to help children traveling alone, but they're busy with their regular jobs. They can't be expected to act as baby sitters or be constantly available to reassure children. It's up to parents to decide if their children are ready emotionally to travel unaccompanied. Some 5-year-olds may cope well; some 9-year-olds could be overwhelmed.

Most children fly alone without incident. But very occasionally there are reports of serious problems. Parents need to plan their children's solo trips carefully. Some suggestions:

Don't send a child alone if it's his or her first time on an airplane. Children, including preteens, should be familiar with airline travel before flying unaccompanied. (Kids also can fly alone internationally -- check with individual airlines for rules -- but parents need to be confident they can handle language differences and passport control.)

Talk with the child about what to expect -- how long the trip is, the noise of the engines, where the restrooms are, what sort of food they'll get and where the call button is for the flight attendant. They need to be told all the basics that adults take for granted.

Ask that the child be seated near the galley so they're near flight attendants. An aisle seat will make it easier for a child to roam or get assistance from flight attendants.

Try to book nonstop or direct flights so the child doesn't have to change planes. Avoid late-afternoon or evening flights, especially if connecting to another flight, since a child could get stuck overnight with weather or mechanical delays.

Check the weather at the destination; if there's a winter blizzard, consider delaying the trip. Some airlines, such as Alaska, may ask that unaccompanied minors not travel at such times.

Ask about the airline's procedure if the child misses a connecting flight or is stranded by a bad weather or a mechanical delay. Stay near a phone in case the airline needs to contact you.

Most seatmates will be helpful to young children, but provide books, tapes, hand-held computer games -- whatever will keep the child happy during the flight. Pack snacks and a drink, too, since airline food can be sparse.

Make sure children have a copy of their itinerary and the name and phone number of the person meeting them. Provide them money, too, and instructions on how to use a pay phone in an emergency.

Talk to your child about what to do during the trip in case anyone's behavior makes them uncomfortable or if anyone tries to touch them in an unacceptable place. Emphasize they should talk to a flight attendant or other airline employee in a uniform, or another adult traveler if they can't find an airline staffer.

Role-play with children. For instance, if a seatmate's behavior makes them uneasy, tell them to say, "Excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom," then leave their seat to tell a flight attendant.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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