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Air travel for minors

In these days of split families and concerned grandparents, I suspect solo trips by minor children are at an all-time high. And requirements are not always clear—and certainly not consistent. As one reader recently asked, “I had thought of having my grandson fly out this summer but when I started checking for fares found the airline did not allow children traveling alone under 15 years of age. Are all of the airlines doing this now?”

The short answer is that most domestic airlines have procedures for transporting minor children, either alone or as what they officially call “unaccompanied minors.” Unlike the case with most fares and services, however, you find quite a few differences among the big airlines about age limits and charges.

Solo kids basic requirements

The minimum age at which minors can travel alone varies from 12 on AirTran or Southwest to 15 on a handful of lines.

Kids age five through 11 can travel alone, but only by using an airline’s “unaccompanied minors” program.

On all the domestic lines I checked, any child over the age of two, unaccompanied or not, must buy an adult-fare ticket. Some international lines, however, offer “youth” tickets, and AirTran’s AirTran U program offers cheap standby deals for travelers age 18 to 22.

Accompanied kids

I checked most of the larger U.S. domestic airlines for their base policies on unaccompanied minors. In most cases, the rules vary depending on age and flight schedule. In the following listing, “direct” flight means a flight with no change of planes; all listed fees apply each way. On most lines, a single fee can apply for a group of up to three or four children.

In all cases, any child over the maximum age listed can travel unaccompanied. Most airlines, however, provide unaccompanied-minor service for kids up to age 17 or 18 if requested—a useful resource when dealing with airheaded teenagers.

Age/Flight Age/Flight Fee
AirTran Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 11: connections OK Fee: $25 nonstop or direct; $40 with connection
Alaska Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 12: connections ok None nonstop or direct; $25 with connection
American Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 14: connections ok $75
Continental Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 14: connections ok $50 nonstop or direct domestic; $70 international; $90 with connection
Delta Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 14: connections ok $50 nonstop or direct; $75 with connection
Northwest Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 14: connections OK $50 nonstop or direct domestic, $60 international; $$75 domestic, $90 international with connection
Southwest Five to 11: nonstop or direct flights only N/A None
United Five to seven: nonstop or direct flights only Eight to 11: connections OK $99
US Airways Five to 14: nonstop or direct flights only N/A $40

Requirements for other, smaller domestic lines are similar. Check with each line for specifics.

Permissible connections depend on the itinerary. Connections on the same carrier are almost always OK, as are connections to some regional affiliates and partner lines. However, rules and times may vary. And connections that require changing terminals at a big airport may not be allowed.

I checked only one international line, British Airways, as an example of what you might encounter. On BA, the minimum age is five; and children six to 12 must travel as unaccompanied minors, with a fee of $40.

Other flight conditions

Although specifics vary, a few other rules seem pretty consistent. Most lines do not accept unaccompanied minors on:

  • Overnight red-eye flights or late-hour flights, except on routes where the only schedules are overnight (such as Alaska to the lower 48 on some lines) and long-haul international flights.
  • Connections to the last flight of the day out of the connecting point.
  • Flights with overnight or extra-long layover times at a connecting airport.
  • Connections that require a change of airports (LaGuardia to JFK, for example, or San Francisco to Oakland).

What you get and what you don’t get

Airline treatment of unaccompanied minors is rigorous. The kids generally wear an around-the-neck pouch that clearly identifies them and contains the requisite paperwork. Where necessary, airline employees escort them between gates at connecting airports, and they make sure that only properly identified persons retrieve them at the completion of the flight. Many lines maintain special lounges or “clubrooms” for minors at connecting airports.

Following some unfortunate instances of molestation, airline employees are generally prohibited from taking unaccompanied minors to their homes in the event of unforeseen overnight delays or if the designated adult fails to show at the arrival airport. In such cases, the minor is generally turned over to local child welfare organizations.

Airlines establish strict requirements for identification of the adults designated to meet the arriving minor. Specifically, they require the name, address, and phone of the person bringing the child to the airport and the name, address, and home and business address of the person meeting the minor. The meeting person must provide positive identification to ensure that they are the person indicated on the paperwork in the ticket jacket.

As far as I can tell, all airlines require that you book unaccompanied-minor travel through a reservation agent rather than online. That’s fairly obvious, since conditions can vary so much depending on the itinerary.

Recommendations

Each airline also posts a laundry list of recommendations for adults who arrange travel for unaccompanied minors. Most of them are obvious, common sense suggestions. By all means check them out on a few websites.

To me, the most important is that you get either a calling card or a cell phone for a minor traveling alone, and that you make sure the minor knows how to use it and whom to call if something goes awry. Also, designate someone at the receiving end who will either attend a landline or carry a cell phone so that the minor will be able to ask for help if needed.

Arranging the trip

I found too many variables to permit an easy checklist of “how to do it” or “which airline has the best deals.” At best, I can provide a few basic guidelines:

  • Kids as young as 12 can travel solo on AirTran or Southwest. If your minor is between 12 and 14, and mature enough to travel alone, go with one of those lines.
  • One way or another, you can usually figure out an unaccompanied-minor trip for any kid age five or over.
  • No matter cost and other differences, nonstop or direct flights are always your best bet, even if that means using airports more distant from the ones you prefer at either end or both ends of the trip.

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