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United: Nonstops Only for Unaccompanied Minors

United Airlines quietly amended its rules on travel for unaccompanied minors: Effective immediately, United's service is limited to nonstop flights only. Unaccompanied minor service provides strict supervision throughout the trip, including fail-safe hand-over to a designated adult at the destination airport. On United, the service is mandatory for children ages 5-11 who are not accompanied by a parent, guardian, or adult age 18 or over, and is optional for children12-17. The charge is $150 each way. United has not posted any explanation for this change, but industry types believe it is to minimize the potential risks of handling children at connecting airports in the event of delay or cancellation, especially in instances requiring overnight stays.

This change will place a considerable hardship on travelers to/from smaller cities, where most flights are limited to short-haul connections to a proximate hub. These cities' airports typically do not have any long-haul flights, so someone who wants to fly a minor child on a long trip will have no choice but to drive to the nearest hub with extensive long-haul service. At my home airport in Medford OR, for example, United's only nonstop destinations are Denver and San Francisco, so anyone living here who wants to fly a minor to, say, Chicago, New York, or Boston on United would have to drive 300-350 miles to Portland, Sacramento, or San Francisco to find nonstops.

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In these days of extended—and often split—families, flying minor children unaccompanied has become a real problem for many. And, at least for now, unaccompanied minor policies are not uniform among U.S. airlines, according to their Contracts of Carriage as of Late December, 2013:

  • Hawaiian allows unaccompanied minors on connecting flights.
  • Alaska, American, and Delta limit unaccompanied minors to nonstop or through flights for ages 5-7 but allow connections for ages 8-11.
  • Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United (now), US Airways, and Virgin America limit all unaccompanied minor service to nonstop or through (no plane change) flights.
  • Allegiant does not accept unaccompanied minors at all.

Even where they allow connections, most lines to not accept unaccompanied minors on flights starting late in the day or on any flight they determine is likely to be delayed or cancelled. Also, fees and age limits vary slightly.

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