Children Flying Alone
How to prepare your kids to fly as an unaccompanied minor
Summer is the season most kids fly alone as unaccompanied minors, to visit family over their vacation.
Two summers ago, Solomon Lapides was eager to visit his grandmother, Debra Zalut, in Cherry Hill, NJ. Trouble was, he lived thousands of miles away in California and no family trip was planned. After carefully discussing the situation and researching their options, his parents agreed that Solomon, then 11, was ready to fly cross-country by himself.
Estimates peg the annual number of “unaccompanied minors” — kids between 5 and 11 who fly (mostly to visit relatives) without adult supervision — at 7 million, according to USLegal.com. Though rules differ by airline, safety is the ultimate concern: Unaccompanied minors are assigned to airline personnel who ensure that kids board the right aircraft, are seated properly and are delivered to their designated parties after deplaning. However, these staffers have other responsibilities, so it’s essential that kids who fly solo are responsible enough to feel comfortable on their own.
Ready for takeoff?
Experts agree that knowing when your child is ready to fly alone is less about chronological age and more about maturity. Solomon, now 13, was keen to make the trip by himself. “I had gone multiple times on a plane before with my family, so I was used to the whole procedure,” he says. In fact, he appreciated the special treatment being an unaccompanied minor afforded him: “A woman working for the airport met me at security and let me cut the line to go right to the front. That’s normally an hour-long process.”
“Although there are minimum and maximum ages set by the airlines [see “Unaccompanied Matters,” above], parents are in the best position to decide whether their child is ready to travel alone,” says Caitlin Harvey of the US Department of Transportation. “Ask these questions,” suggests Voorhees, NJ psychologist Randi S. Kell, PhD: “Is your child confident in identifying airline personnel and seeking out help? How does he handle unexpected situations that arise without warning? How independent and responsible is he? Does he have good common sense?”
Preflight prep for unaccompanied minors
“The flight itself is, in some ways, the least of the issues,” says Kell. “Navigating the airport can be the biggest challenge.” She suggests going to the airport and role-playing prior to the flight: “Let him navigate through the airport, and provide some independence by allowing him to go to a bathroom or get something to eat within your view.”
“The most important thing to tell your child is not to leave the airport unaccompanied or with a stranger,” says Harvey. However, warns Kell, don’t convey anxiety: “If the child believes the parent is worried, this will increase his anxiety.”
Unaccompanied minor flight plan for success
Families of unaccompanied minors can visit Airconsumer.dot.gov/publications/kidsalone.pdf to ensure that they follow protocol and avoid potential pitfalls. Some important rules of thumb:
Choose the simplest itinerary possible.
Flights earlier in the day tend to have better on-time records than later ones.
Avoid the last flight of the day.
Arrange meal service (if offered) in advance.
Fill out all the airline’s required forms.
Use electronic ticketing so your child cannot lose a paper ticket.
Be sure all dates, times, cities and your child’s name are accurate.
Inquire about a gate pass that will allow you to accompany your child past security and watch him board the plane.
Wait until the plane actually takes off before leaving the airport.
Have your flyer bring a book, game or video to pass the time, plus a prepaid credit card for unforeseen purchases and snacks if there’s no meal service.
Do not change plans at the last minute.
Solomon’s family learned that final lesson the hard way. His aunt had been designated to pick him up in Philadelphia, but at the last minute a different aunt and his grandmother came instead. “Security gave us a hard time,” says Zalut. “It was quite confusing. They kept him in another room with other kids for about an hour until it was all worked out.”
And while Zalut was concerned that Solomon “might get scared or wouldn’t know what to do,” the tween kept his cool, having been prepped well. Concludes Kell, “The child absolutely needs to be part of the plan to fly solo.”
Terri Akman is an MK contributing writer.