Many kids still flying solo

The Baltimore Sun

Your children are going to camp far from home this summer, but you can't get off work or justify the expense of an extra plane ticket just to fly them there. Should you trust the airlines to take care of them if they fly alone?

Given the well-publicized difficulties in commercial air travel -- with ever-shifting security rules and, earlier this year, passengers stuck on grounded planes -- some parents simply won't consider it.

"Some families don't have a choice," said Michelle Bisnoff, a mother of two from Orange County, Calif., "but how can anyone trust the overall situation for their kids, much less hand off the light of their life to underpaid flight attendants from close-to-bankrupt airlines, who have a full-time job once they are in the air, and it's not watching your kid?

"No way," she said. "I'd be a nervous wreck."

Yet many children between 5 and 14 years old fly alone each year, with most airlines charging extra fees to take them. JetBlue flew more than 40,000 unaccompanied minors last year, with most traveling during June, July and August. American Airlines flies about 200,000 a year. Southwest (one of the few that don't charge a fee) takes more than 100,000.

Each airline has its own set of rules. In general, airlines promise to escort unaccompanied minors onto their flights and release them to the properly designated person upon arrival. Some carriers give children pouches where they can keep their IDs and itineraries. Others have designated areas in airports, with games and snacks, where children can wait for connecting flights under airline supervision. Both Qantas and Air New Zealand require their employees not to seat unaccompanied minors next to men.

But the airlines' assistance is far from a baby-sitting service. Children must be at least 5 years old to fly alone. Three or four different airline employees may take responsibility for a minor during one trip -- shuffling the child from airline workers at the departing city to flight attendants on the plane to other employees at the destination. And they are typically barred from care-taking tasks such as giving a child medicine.

To make sure the child is handed off correctly at the end of the trip, some carriers ask for a photocopy at the time of check-in of the photo identification of the person who will receive the child.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, most domestic carriers stopped allowing unaccompanied children 8 and younger to take connecting flights, and most now allow them only on nonstop flights.

Also, the cost for children flying alone has been going up. Last summer, JetBlue, which previously offered its unaccompanied-minor service free, began charging a $25 fee each way and raised the maximum age for which it is required to 12 from 11. American raised its fee to $75 from $60 in March. Continental raised its fees between $5 and $20 last year.

For many parents, knowing someone is looking out for their children is well worth the cost. "It would be so scary if your child ended up in another city somewhere and no one really knew," said Melissa Babcock, a mother of two from Kenilworth, Ill., whose son Will, now 15, has been flying solo since he was 11.

Mix-ups do happen. Last June, a 14-year-old boy flying as an unaccompanied minor to Indiana with United fell asleep while waiting for a transfer at Chicago O'Hare airport and missed his flight, according to reports by the Associated Press. And another boy, who was supposed to be flying to Taipei, Taiwan, via Tokyo, ended up in his seat. When the mix-up was discovered, United turned the plane around and went back to O'Hare to correct the mistake.

But such blunders are not common. Out of 8,324 complaints against airlines received by the Department of Transportation last year, just 49 concerned unaccompanied minors.

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