- A nine-year old's story shows what to avoid when it comes to children flying alone
- Each airline has its own rules on unaccompanied minors
- Follow the rules and take some precautions to keep your child safe
Children often take airline flights alone for a variety of reasons, such as an extended visit with her grandparents in another state, or a summer-time visit with a non-custodial parent in another country. Regardless of the reason, if you're thinking of putting your child on a plane without you or another adult, it's a good idea to know some of the rules and safety measures when it comes children flying alone.
What to Avoid
Julien Reid, a nine-year old boy, was flying alone from his father's house in California to meet with his mother in Canada. The boy had to take a connecting flight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, one the busiest airports in the world.
At O'Hare, United Airlines personnel took Reid to a lounge for minors like him to wait for the connecting flight. It was supposed to be about a two-hour wait. The connecting flight was delayed, however. When it eventually took off, Reid wasn't on it. Rather, he sat in the lounge for about eight hours until his mother was able to contact United personnel who got him on flight.
Each of the major airlines (Delta/Northwest, United, and American, for example) have their own rules about children flying alone, or as they're commonly called, unaccompanied minors (UMs).
There may be some differences in the rules depending on the airline, but in general you can expect to see rules on:
Ages and restrictions. For example, children under 5 years old may not be allowed to fly alone; children between the ages of 5 and 7 may be permitted to fly alone if they're enrolled in the airline's UM program and there are no connecting flights; children 8 to 14 years in the UM program may fly alone
Forms needed to be completed before the flight
Booking and reservations. UMs must be booked in person or over the telephone, that is, you can't use the airline's web site
Connections: UMs can't be booked on the last connecting flight in the evening of the traveling day (this avoids the possibility of a child having to spend the night in a hotel overnight alone)
Fees: Airlines typically charge about $100 for UM programs
In the UM program, airline personnel are responsible for making sure your child reaches her destination safely. Personnel make sure she boards safely and on-time; is comfortable during the flight; makes any connecting flights; is safe during layovers; and is united with the parent or adult responsible for her at the destination.
An airline that doesn't live up to its responsibilities may face civil lawsuits by parents for any personal injuries suffered by their children, and perhaps even criminal charges if something goes terribly wrong.
What You Need To Do
Of course, you need to read carefully and follow the airline's UM rules. In addition, you can keep your child safe by:
- Making sure your child knows his full name, address, telephone number, as well as the name and telephone number of the adult he's meeting at his destination
- Making sure he can contact you in case there's a delay. Julien Reid had a cell phone and used it to contact his mother. She was able to talk to airline personnel without having to deal with airport switchboards, paging, etc. Alternatively, give your child a pre-paid calling card and make sure he know how to use it to make local, long distance, or international calls
- Giving the child some change to make phone calls just in case there's a problem with his cell phone or calling card. If he's traveling to another country like Julien Reid, make sure he has currency for that country
- Making sure the parent or adult at the destination has a proper photo ID; the airline will only release your child to the person you named in the UM forms
Luckily there was a happy ending in Reid's case. United apologized for the mistake, vowed to investigate how and why it happened, and refunded the $100 UM fee. It could have been a far uglier ending, considering the crowd at a busy airport and how child abductions seemingly happen every day.
If you take some steps to keep your child safe and the airline does its job properly, your child will make it to her destination without a hitch.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What should I do if an airline offers me discounted or free tickets to make-up for a mistake it made when my child flew as an UM?
- If parents are divorced, who has to pay the fee for the UM program?
- What's the first thing I should do if my child is hurt because she wasn't properly supervised by airline personnel while she was flying as a UM?