Before sending a child on a flight alone, read the fine print

Airlines say they do everything possible to notify parents and guardians of flight changes in advance and to rebook passengers on the next available flight (AFP)
Airlines say they do everything possible to notify parents and guardians of flight changes in advance and to rebook passengers on the next available flight (AFP)

Summary

Poor weather, other issues might mean your unaccompanied minor can’t fly, even if the flight is still operating

Before Sending a Child on a Flight Alone, Read the Fine Print

BY DAWN GILBERTSON | UPDATED 2月 01, 2023 05:30 凌晨 EST

Poor weather, other issues might mean your unaccompanied minor can’t fly, even if the flight is still operating

Nina Simon’s 9-year-old daughter spent five extra days with her grandparents in Washington state. Annalee Hickman Pierson’s 7-year-old daughter missed her first Christmas with her baby sister in Utah, where matching pajamas and velvet dresses awaited.

The children were flying solo as part of Southwest Airlines Co.’s service for unaccompanied minors. They were among the youngest travelers caught in the carrier’s holiday meltdown.

Southwest’s flight woes were unprecedented, but its move to temporarily suspend the service has precedent. Airlines reserve the right to deny boarding to unaccompanied minors—policies found in the fine print disclosed on some airline websites and in those contracts of carriage few travelers read.

Limits or bans on unaccompanied-minor travel, which costs passengers an extra $50 to $150 in fees each way for airport escorts and in-flight monitoring, generally occur when airlines anticipate significant flight cancellations, delays and diversions. Parents and guardians should prepare for the possibilities.

Alaska Air Group Inc. restricted unaccompanied-minor travel in Seattle and Portland, Ore., to varying degrees when icy weather hit the Pacific Northwest before Christmas. It also has a blanket embargo in the winter in Sun Valley, Idaho. Earlier this week, American Airlines Group Inc., restricted connecting travel for unaccompanied minors through its Dallas/Fort Worth hub because of the weather.

Airlines say they do everything possible to notify parents and guardians of flight changes in advance and to rebook passengers on the next available flight. That’s easier when they cancel flights ahead of a storm—not so simple at the last minute.

A surprise change of plans

Mrs. Hickman Pierson says she didn’t learn her daughter couldn’t fly home from Southern California on Southwest on Christmas Eve until her daughter’s grandmother reached the check-in desk after waiting in line for two hours at John Wayne Airport. The early-evening flight into Salt Lake City was delayed a few hours with no set departure time. She says they were told the flight would eventually take off, but unaccompanied minors weren’t allowed, given the expected arrival after midnight.

“That was the first time I’ve ever seen something like that," says Mrs. Hickman Pierson, whose daughter had flown by herself before this trip. “They’re, like, ‘We’re not even rebooking you. Try again tomorrow.’"

The law librarian says she frantically researched other flight options for an unaccompanied minor and considered driving to meet her daughter’s grandmother halfway. She ended up rebooking her daughter on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Tulsa, Okla., a couple of days later for a postholiday gathering with her side of the family.

Southwest refunded the cost of her original ticket, she says, including the unaccompanied-minor fees, and reimbursed the family for the ticket on American.

Ms. Simon, an author who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., found out two days before her daughter’s scheduled trip home on Dec. 29 that the flight was canceled. A letter from Southwest the next day said it wouldn’t accept unaccompanied minors at all. The airline apologized but didn’t provide any immediate rebooking options, since it had cut thousands of flights.

“The last thing we would want is for an unaccompanied minor to be going back and forth from the airport—or stranded at the airport, which, thankfully, this customer was not," Southwest spokesman Chris Perry says.

Ms. Simon didn’t worry about her daughter’s safety since she was with family. And she says she’s grateful they didn’t have added expenses like so many stranded travelers.

“For us, it wasn’t about hardship, it was about uncertainty," she says. They ended up rebooking a Southwest flight for Jan. 3 to make sure the airline was back on track.

A downside for airlines

Airlines don’t offer unaccompanied-minor service to make money. It’s time-consuming for gate agents and flight attendants, and there’s the risk of viral headlines when something goes wrong.

American, which says it carried more than 200,000 unaccompanied minors over 12 months ending in October 2022, was in the hot seat last summer. A 12-year-old on a flight to Miami walked off the plane unnoticed, even with the lanyard full of documents such passengers are required to wear, according to her mother, Monica Gilliam. Unaccompanied minors are supposed to be escorted to and from the plane by an airline representative.

She says her daughter was alone for 30 minutes before she met up with her dad, who lives in Florida. Ms. Gilliam, a Tennessee-based photographer, says the incident was so traumatizing to the family that she flew to Florida to check on her and they flew home together.

Flying with her is pricey and time-consuming, says Ms. Gilliam, but is the only option for them today. She says American refunded her ticket but never followed up with the incident report they promised.

“Even if you do all the right things to get them there safely, the ball can be dropped by the airline and can potentially put your child in danger if they don’t follow their own procedures," Ms. Gilliam says.

American spokeswoman Sarah Jantz says the airline takes service failures seriously and has taken steps to “ensure this doesn’t happen again."

What are the rules for unaccompanied minors?

Airline policies on unaccompanied minors vary widely. Among the 10 largest U.S. airlines, only Frontier and Allegiant don’t allow children under age 15 to travel alone.

The other airlines allow passengers as young as 5 to travel solo under the unaccompanied-minor program. American, United and Delta require the service for travelers through age 14. JetBlue requires it through age 13, Southwest—age 11.

Many airlines only allow such travel on nonstop flights, or have stricter age limits on connections. International flights are off-limits at several airlines.

Some airlines allow siblings to travel together for one fee; others charge for each.

Some limit the number of unaccompanied passengers per flight. JetBlue only allows three per flight.

Bottom line: Do your homework well ahead of any school breaks and start working on a Plan B, whether that’s flying with your child, finding another family member to do it or driving.

 

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