Airlines and Unaccompanied Minors
There can be many reasons for sending a child on a flight alone. Often it’s to visit a parent in a different city or family members living far away. Sometimes it may be related to school functions or extracurricular activities. Whatever the reason, airlines have specific policies in place for flying “unaccompanied minors (the industry term) to their destination. Airline experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors fly each year, so it has become a fairly common practice for airlines, airport staff, and parents and guardians alike.
You should know that there are no government-imposed, industry-wide standards for unaccompanied minors who fly – individual airlines set their own prices, fees, restrictions, and policies. Review an airline’s unaccompanied minors policy before making arrangements. This article provides a general overview of how airlines accommodate unaccompanied minors.
Ticketing, Fees, and Pricing
We’ll start with buying plane tickets. All airlines have minimum age requirements for children flying alone. It’s standard across the industry that an unaccompanied minor must be at least five years old. Beyond that, exact age cutoffs and requirements can vary. Most airlines require children between the ages of five and twelve to fly as unaccompanied minors, but this age range varies between airlines. Flying as an unaccompanied minor can be an option for older children up until the age of eighteen. Check with a prospective airline on their age requirements.
You should expect to pay extra as well. Airlines will normally escort a child to and from their flights and provide some form of supervision while at the airport and en route. This necessarily requires more from their personnel and the cost is passed on to the consumer. Expect to purchase an adult-priced ticket for an unaccompanied minor and to pay an additional fee. Most airlines currently have a fixed fee of anywhere from $50 to $150 each way, while some airlines (such as Virgin America) adjust the fee based on flight duration. These fees are generally nonrefundable and, like most airline costs and fees, are subject to change on short notice (but not after purchase).
Flight Restrictions & Itineraries
You should be aware that airlines might have flight restrictions for unaccompanied minors. Carriers may limit the types of flights and itineraries available to children flying alone, and again these restrictions may have different age cut offs from airline to airline. Children might be required to fly direct routes to a destination, might not be able to fly on itineraries requiring plane changes or multiple connections, and might not be able to travel when connections through other airports (most commonly in and around New York) are required. These situations can prove complicated for even experienced adult travelers, and airlines may simply want to avoid them entirely for children.
Unaccompanied minors might also be prevented from taking particular flights. Airlines know which flights are frequently cancelled or delayed and might prevent minors from taking them. The last flight of the day, a red-eye flight, or a route with connections that are often missed may be unavailable to children flying alone. Cancellations and delays can be especially difficult for unaccompanied minors.
Arrive Early, Stay Late
You should arrive at the airport even earlier when an unaccompanied minor is flying. Airlines require a parent or guardian to fill out forms and information for unaccompanied minors. This, of course, will take more time. The airline will need to know the name and information of the person receiving an unaccompanied minor at the destination. That person should expect to verify his or her identification and the information upon arriving at the airport. Airlines also recommend that parents or guardians remain at the airport until a flight has taken off, so expect to stick around for a bit.
Children flying as unaccompanied minors can generally expect significant consideration during their trip, and this isn’t a bad thing. Airlines often have unaccompanied minors wear or carry identifying information, travel information, and other details on their person. This makes it easier for airline representatives, airport personnel, and security screeners to spot them and keep track of them. Many airlines will assign an employee to escort a child to and from a flight, while others may permit parents or guardians to bring a child to and from the gate. Check with the airline for their policies in this regard.
While putting a child on a flight can be an uncomfortable prospect, airlines have become pretty good at accommodating parents, guardians, and unaccompanied minors. There is also a natural sense of shared responsibility when among flyers. Flight crewmembers and fellow passengers will look out for a child flying alone. There is generally safety in numbers here: a child in distress will almost always get help. Nonetheless, you should always prepare a child for flying alone and make sure they are familiar with air travel rules.
Finally, if you or your child suffered an injury while traveling on an airline, whether physical or otherwise, it may be in your best interests to talk with an aviation attorney.