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When kids fly, parents must be prepared for restrictions

Richard Janis thought he had found a good deal in April when he bought tickets from United Airlines to send his 13-year-old twins from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington to visit his parents in West Palm Beach, Fla., for about $220 each. But when he got to the airport, he discovered that the flight was on United's code-share partner, US Airways, which introduced a complication.

United lets children 12 years and older travel as adults, but US Airways defines children 5 to 14 as "unaccompanied minors," meaning that an adult must check them in with the airline and, at their destination, the airline hands them over to a designated adult, who must show identification.

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For that, US Airways charges at least $40 each way. Janis, a tax and business consultant to the transportation industry who lives in Leesburg, Va., resentfully paid an extra $160.

"These kids have experience traveling on direct flights for their entire career, to their grandparents in California and Florida, and to New York," he said. If they had traveled as adults and had had any problem, he added, they would call him; each carries a cell phone. They had no need of hand-holding, he said.

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Although the airlines say the charges are justified, Janis said he was cheated. "I felt like it was a hidden fare increase," he said. "I was not a happy camper."

Summertime fliers

At this time of year, children who literally are happy campers -- on their way to distant camps or simply the children of parents who are divorced or separated -- are boarding planes by the thousands every day. Worldwide, the airlines carry millions of unaccompanied minors every year.

Some give them baseball caps or big, bright buttons, or hang ID cards around their necks to make them easy to spot. In the summer, Delta runs a chain of lounges for children at its hub airports, called Dusty's Dens.

Almost always, their trips are smooth. America West, though, stopped accepting children under 15 for connecting flights after it sent two to the wrong cities in 2001. No airline will carry unaccompanied children under 5.

The airlines say that their load of unaccompanied minors is six or eight times larger in summer than the rest of the year. And many of those children will duplicate the experience of the Janis twins, Leesa and Billy, flying as unaccompanied minors even if they had flown unsupervised in the past.

One reason is that airlines -- among them, American, Delta, US Airways, Northwest and Continental -- have been raising the minimum age for flying as an ordinary, unaccompanied passenger. In some cases, they have raised the age that a teenager must have reached to qualify as the adult companion of a younger sibling.

Besides charging a fee, the airlines set restrictions on unaccompanied minors. Some do not let very young children make connections. If a connection is allowed, their second flight cannot be the last of the day; if the first flight is late, the airline may be stuck with the child for the night. And the fee may be higher if there is a connection.

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Some airlines will turn away unaccompanied minors if the weather is threatening. Some will not let them use e-tickets, and some will not allow them to be ticketed through Web sites. Many airlines require advance notice if the passenger is an unaccompanied minor; some ask for proof of age.

At the other extreme is Southwest Airlines, which does not charge extra for unaccompanied minors. Angela Vargo, a spokeswoman, said the airline never had.

All airline rules are subject to change, so the safe strategy is to book the flight through a telephone reservation agent or travel agent, and ask about the rules.

Airlines stress security

The airlines say that the charges are justified and that the extra supervision is essential. For example, at US Airways, which decided last December that 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds would have to fly as unaccompanied minors, as well as those age 5 to 11, David Castelveter, a spokesman, said, "We wanted to make sure that we were providing the best and the most secure travel to young travelers."

He said, though, that his airline's policy was to charge only one fee for two siblings, and that Janis should not have been charged twice.

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Airline officials say that unaccompanied minors can mean significant extra costs. Some maintain lounges for children in their hub airports, like the ones that business travelers pay extra to enter, except that these have games, videos and snack food for children. And there must be an employee responsible for a child who is not being met by a parent.

Parents differ in their reactions to the rules. Many are grateful.

"It was worth the money for the peace of mind," said Gail Shannon, who sent her 12-year-old son, Sam, to Chicago on ATA Airlines, which allows -- but does not require -- children 12 to 17 to be sent as unaccompanied minors by their parents. She paid extra to make sure that if her friends were late getting to the airport, the airline would look after him. But she let him fly back to Washington as an adult, she said, because she would be at the airport to get him.

Other parents say they are being charged for a service they don't want or need.

Sharon Goldsmith is planning to have her daughter Rayza fly home to Washington on United from a summer camp in the Midwest in August. "The rule was frustrating for us because Rayza will be so close to her 12th birthday, and we know she can handle it," said Goldsmith, in an interview conducted by e-mail. The Goldsmiths paid $60.


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