Air Trips for Unaccompanied Minors

Whether to meet visitation requirements in split families, to visit retired grandparents, to attend school, or for some other reason, you sometimes need to arrange flights for young kids to travel on their own. All airlines have "unaccompanied minor" provisions included in their contracts of carriage, augmented by various rules.

In general, the procedures for unaccompanied minors are about the same on any airline. Unaccompanied minors require reservations and adult-priced tickets. Adults involved must make firm arrangements to get them to their departure airport and ironclad arrangements for some adult to meet their incoming flight, with all the required documentation. Once an airline accepts a child for unaccompanied travel, it usually places all relevant documents—tickets, meeting instructions, and cash for incidental expenses—in a pouch that hangs around the child's neck. Flight attendants are required to provide onboard assistance, and, where connecting flights are allowed, ground attendants escort the child from arrival gate to departure gate. Airlines generally do not accept unaccompanied minors on flights that stand a substantial chance of interruption: They don't book unaccompanied minors on the last connection of the day, they generally don't accept kids on itineraries that require a change of airline or airport, and they cancel any departure likely to run into a known weather problem. In the event of an unforeseen problem, airline personnel are required to arrange for monitored accommodations, but airlines work hard to minimize the chances of an overnight delay.

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Here are the general rules covering domestic flights; international travel is more complicated.

  • The one common rule among all lines is that the minimum age for any child to fly without an accompanying adult is five years old.
  • The minimum age for a child to travel alone and unsupervised on an adult ticket is 12 years old on American, Hawaiian, Southwest, and United; 13 years old on Alaska and Sun Country; 14 years old on Allegiant and JetBlue; and 15 years old on Delta, Frontier, Spirit, US Airways, and Virgin America.
  • The minimum age to travel with unaccompanied-minor service on nonstop or through (no plane change) flights is five years old on all lines except Allegiant, which does not accept unaccompanied minors of any age.
  • The minimum age to travel as an unaccompanied minor on itineraries requiring connections is five years old on Hawaiian interisland flights, seven years old on United, and eight years old on Alaska, American, and Delta. Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country, US Airways, and Virgin America do not accept unaccompanied minors on connecting flights at all.
  • Fees for unaccompanied-minor service are $25 on Alaska nonstop ($50 for connections); $50 on Southwest; $75 on Sun Country; $100 on American, Delta, Frontier (reduced or waived for exalted frequent flyers), Hawaiian ($35 on interisland flights), JetBlue, and Spirit; $150 on United and US Airways; and $75 to $125 (depending on destination) on Virgin America.
  • American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, and Sun Country specify that two unaccompanied minors traveling together require only one fee; Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit say the fee applies to each child.

Even where not required, most airlines provide unaccompanied minor service to children up to age 17, if parents request it. (Some also offer similar service to cognitively impaired adults.)

A traveler recently reported a problem related to fees for unaccompanied minors. Unlike most other lines, Southwest requires that travelers booking unaccompanied minors must pay the fee at the time of booking. Southwest's information page says that the fee is nonrefundable if "travel does not take place." This traveler booked two unaccompanied minor tickets, but had to cancel and rebook. Southwest said he had to pay two more unaccompanied minor fees again; he said that the travel did not "take place" so he shouldn't have to pay two fees. Southwest finally relented, but only after a hassle.

All this shows that finding the best deal for unaccompanied minors—especially for two minors—involves a lot of tradeoffs and complexities. And it also shows a "new rule" for fees: Unless you're sure they're refundable, wait as long as the rules allow to pay.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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