I read a story the other day that unnerved me. It tapped into the worst fear we harbor as parents: our children being alone and at risk, and our being too far away to help.
This story involved Annie and Perry Klebahn from San Francisco, who elected to allow their 10-year-old daughter, Phoebe, to fly alone aboard United Airlines, a carrier they'd routinely used. It was her first trip as an unaccompanied minor, flying from her home in California to a summer camp in northern Michigan. The flight required the girl to switch planes in Chicago, which the family assumed would be taken care of by United crew personnel.
Instead, the service had been outsourced to a third party whose staff apparently failed to show up at the gate. Phoebe wound up getting lost in the shuffle for a time at O'Hare International, one of the nation's busiest airports, before being put on another flight several hours later. What's more, United staff neglected to contact the parents or the camp. The 10-year-old asked three times to use a phone to call her parents but crew members instead told her to wait, so the little girl couldn't phone home.
When camp personnel discovered Phoebe wasn't onboard the flight, they called the Klebahns. (The couple had tracked the flight and when it landed at Traverse City, assumed their daughter had arrived safely.) What followed was a flurry of anxious phone calls trying to get an unresponsive United to fill in the blanks. While their daughter did arrive at the camp several hours later, it was a stressful day. Read the full story here.
While this case was handled very poorly by United, there are thousands of children who travel unaccompanied each day and meet with success. But it's up to us as parents to prepare them for that step.
TIPS FOR CHILDREN TRAVELING ALONE
• Know your kid. Weigh whether your child is old enough to fly alone. Do you fly regularly — ie, at least once or twice a year so he knows what to expect? Is your child comfortable sitting away from you once you've boarded the flight? Would he willingly approach a stewardess or a stranger were a problem to arise? Does he know how to use a cell phone so he could contact you in case of an emergency?
While most airlines allow children ages 5 to 12 to travel as unaccompanied minors, it doesn't mean every child should. Carriers typically limit children ages 5 to 7 to direct or nonstop flights only. Unaccompanied minors are also not to be scheduled on the last flight of the day, nor will they be transferred onto those flights. Airlines also charge a small fee for their service ($50-100).
I had a friend whose 8-year-old routinely flew from Memphis to Los Angeles to be with his dad. Those flights were direct, meaning both parents could meet him at either gate. But I still feel it's asking a lot of a child that young. Again, it goes back to knowing your child.
• Check with the airlines to make sure you understand their policies per unaccompanied minors. Most carriers have a page on their website which spells this out. Ask whether airline stewardesses assume responsibility for minors once the plane is at the gate. United had a third party handling this task in Chicago, and in this instance, they failed to show up.
Make arrangements about who will meet your child at her destination and be sure that person's name is noted on your form. Have your child's itinerary written out or in an email and on his or her person, so if she should become lost, she can give it to the proper authorities.
On Delta's unaccompanied minors form, parents must agree to the following, should the child's escort not arrive at the airport:
"Should the minor not be met as stated, I authorize the carrier(s) to take whatever action they consider necessary to ensure the minor's safe custody, including return of the minor to the airport of departure. I also agree to indemnify and reimburse the carrier(s) for necessary and reasonable costs and expenses incurred by them in taking such action."
• Plan your child's flight for early in the day, so that should something unexpected happen, there are more flights available.
• Talk to your child about how to handle an emergency. Should they become separated from the stewardesses of their flight, instruct them to go immediately to a gate agent and tell them, "I'm lost."
Make sure your child knows how to place a call to you. Be aware too, that the most self-possessed child can become unhinged when the unexpected happens. Encourage them to stay cool by staying put and not wandering off.
For more travel tips regarding children, read the U.S. Dept. of Transportation's When Kids Fly Alone.
READER FEEDBACK: Has your child flown as an unaccompanied minor? What was your experience?