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Will you have a child flying alone on a US flight?

Photo of child awaiting flight at airport

If you have a child who will be flying alone on a commercial US flight---or if you've ever imagined that someday you MIGHT---there are some special considerations to think about.

Of course, to PARENTS, "worry" is what it's all about. Will your child make it OK to his final destination? Will anybody bother her---or, heaven forbid--SNATCH her??

My grandkids fly alone to visit ME, and so I KNOW it's a worry to have your grandchild or child flying alone! But, actually, the FIRST time is the worst...because things WILL turn out OK, and you'll find that out for yourself. Sure, you'll worry again the second, third, fourth---and every!---time. But, by then, you'll have the partial comfort of knowing your worries are probably "for nothing."

The airlines these days have the routine of "accompanying unescorted minors" down to a science. They HAVE TO---they don't want to get slammed with expensive law suits! AS LONG AS your child feels comfortable being away from you...eg. "and won't cry"...the airlines will do THEIR part very well to keep a child flying alone safe and sound.

Should your child fly alone yet?

If YOU will have a child flying alone, your first priority will be to MAKE SURE that your child feels comfortable being away from you. How can you tell? Well, nothing is 100% predictable with kids, but generally speaking, it would be OK to have a child flying alone if he/she can---

*Go to a day care center or friend's house...and let you leave without crying

*Can adjust to a new babysitter coming to the house when you go out for the evening

*Can sleep alone without undue fear. (Remember, you're not going to be at Grandma's house to cuddle him or her. It's not just howling on the AIRPLANE that's a concern!)

*Can do a reasonable amount of self-care...and ESPECIALLY be able to use the toilet without any help. This includes wiping and remembering to zip up again.

Children Flying Alone: Ways to ease your child's mind

Photo: child earing airlines' ID tag

Even if your child meets the above common-sense requirements, it will still be nerve-wracking to have your child flying alone. It will be do-able, but it won't be fun for you...until he or she is safely into Grandma's arms at the other end. (I'm just saying "grandma" because it applies to ME. But, of course, it could be Dad, Cousin Ben or Uncle Buddy, for all that matter.)

It would be best--both for you and also for the child flying alone-- if the two of you have recently taken an air trip TOGETHER. That way, he or she is familiar with the whole "flying scene" and you will KNOW for certain that he is comfortable being in an airplane. You will have seen for yourself that your child hasn't been fearful when the plane lifts off. And has been able to amuse himself more-or-less well. And has managed alone in those tiny airplane bathrooms.

If you aren't able to actually take a flight together with your child, try "breaking him in" to the idea by visiting your local airport several times. Many children LOVE looking at airplanes! (Actually, I was one of them. Going to Los Angeles International Airport just to watch the planes land and take off was a family activity that I enjoyed with my parents. They took me out to LAX to watch the planes about once a year.)

If you live in Los Angeles, LAX Airport STILL has a good spot for watching the planes with your kids. Head to the Tom Bradley International Terminal...and go to the McDonald's Restaurant on the 2nd floor. (No, you don't have to pass through a security screening to do this.) Your kids will be thrilled with their Happy Meals (although the toy inside may NOT be the same as in out-of-the-airport McDonald's Restaurants.) Plus, you'll get to watch jet airplanes land and take off to all parts of the world---Asia, Australia, South America, Europe. It's quite exciting to think about it really...how all those people in the planes will be thousands of miles from where they awoke by the time they go to bed!

Children Flying Alone: Airline Rules and Regulations

Animation of person drowning in paperwork

Once YOU have decided that your child is old enough to fly, then you have to cope with what the AIRLINES say about your child flying alone. (I added this cute little "drowning in paperwork" cartoon because--no matter which air carrier you choose--having your child fly alone involves PAPERWORK!)

There are no government regulations regarding a child flying alone, and so each individual airline sets its own policies on this matter. The bottom line for YOU---there are as many different sets of rules for a child flying alone as there are airline companies!

However, I CAN give you a somewhat average set of circumstances that you'll encounter when you have a child flying alone. They are---

*Airlines don't accept children as "unaccompanied minors" until they're over the age of 5. From approximately the ages of 5--12, children MUST fly as "unaccompanied minors." And, above that age, tweens and teens have the OPTION to fly unaccompanied with no special regulations...but they MAY unroll in the "unaccompanied minors" program until the age of 18.

*Alas---the unaccompanied minors program involves paying an extra fee! Not only that, but your child must pay a full "adult" fare---he or she won't be eligible for any special children's fare when flying alone.

*You must let the airline know in advance that you have a child flying alone. There are forms to fill out, plus those fees to pay! Before contacting the airline, you must be certain just WHO will be picking up the child. Why so? Because you must provide the name, address and phone number of this person to your airline, and explain what relationship this person has to your child. The pick-up person must produce a government-issued ID in order to take the child on the other end, and it must match what you have told them EXACTLY.

*Realize that if your child's flight has connections with another airline along the way, you might have to pay fees for that 2nd airline, as well.

*However, also realize that SOME airlines don't permit a child flying alone to schedule a flight on anything but a NON-STOP connection. Also, children aren't permitted to take the airline's last flight of the day for a particular destination. That's common sense, really. If something happens to cancel the child's original flight, there's got to be another flight available for a backup.

*Hopefully, there WON'T be any problems with your child's flight, but if there ARE, uniformed airline personnel will stay with your child AT ALL TIMES. Airline personnel will keep you informed of any flight delays due to missed connections, etc. and will also let you know to which flight your child has been rescheduled. (However, it's to prevent parental worry in times like these that some airlines have made the restriction to limit unaccompanied minors only to non-stop flights.)

If you have a child flying alone, here are some extra tips

Ellie and Ryan Fewell

OK, so now you've decided that your child is old enough to fly alone, you have bought the ticket, and you understand the airline's rules. What next?

Not much... just a FEW more things you'll want to know on the subject of "children flying alone." Such as---

*You will want to arrive at the airport an extra 30 minutes early---yes, that means IN ADDITION to the extra time you've already added for security procedures! You won't be allowed to use "express check in," but must wait in the long line to talk with a REAL PERSON for your child's check-in procedure. Then, it will still take extra "paperwork" time that you normally wouldn't have.

*Yes, you CAN accompany your child/grandchild to the gate. While at the check-in desk, you must get a special pass to accompany your child through the security screen. I've done it before. It's not a problem.

*You MUST stay at the airport until the plane leaves the ground. That's in case there's any trouble. One time, a woman waiting alongside me was surprised when they carried her young child back out from the plane to her---screaming. It can happen. (But, if you've assessed your own child well, it shouldn't happen to YOU.)

*Throw into your child's carry-on the following things---a snack or two, a few toys, and extra "contact" phone numbers in case, for some reason, they can't get ahold of you when they need to.

Well, let's say that your child is safely in the air. What now? About the same time as take-off, Grandma (or whomever) may want to be leaving for the airport. On the receiving end, she'll have to stand in that same long check-in line...so that she can get her special pass to get past security and go directly to the gate. Getting this done can take longer than you might imagine, so it pays to be early.

But then, that's it! Your child steps out of the plane, and runs to Grandma for a hug. The airline attendant checks Grandma's ID, and then they're free to go!

My personal experiences with children flying alone

Photo of a child and his suitcase at the airport

In the photo at the top of the page, you see Natali, my granddaughter, at age 5 years & 2 months. She's sitting in the airport seat waiting to go home after visiting me. Was she flying alone? Well, yes and no. She was with her older brother, Gabriel, age 9. We knew that she adored her brother, and we had hoped that flying with him would help her to stay unafraid. Thankfully, that's just what happened! Natali's first flight went smoothly.

Gabriel had made his first trip to see me---all by himself---when he was age 7 years and 10 months...and, since he is the oldest grandchild, he was completely "on his own." He did have experience flying with his mom (my daughter.) Even so, because he was flying totally alone, we didn't even THINK about him making such a trip at age 5 or 6. Even at nearly age 8, we were doubtful. But, Gabriel himself really wanted to make the trip--especially so he could to go to Disneyland--and the flight ended up going well for him.

In the 2nd photo of Natali, you can see the tag that America West gave her to wear throughout her flight. The "tag" was actually a little pouch where her personal info was stored. The airline was very careful not to reveal her name or her personal data on the outside of the tag where other passengers could see the info. (NOTE: Since Natali's first flight to visit me, the airlines have become even stricter about putting identifying information into the little pouch. Last time Natali flew in to visit, there was scarcely any info on the tag around her neck.) The airlines don't want to give strangers any opportunity to fool the child into thinking they're family friends. (Further Note: When Natali and Gabriel flew to visit me in July 2006, the lanyard necklaces were gone...and plastic bracelets--like the ones used as patient ID's in hospitals--were being used instead. I asked if this was for financial reasons...because, of course, a plastic bracelet costs less than 1 cent. The America West/US Airways employee informed me that, no; the changeover was that the bracelets were less conspicuous than the lanyards were. The children, therefore, would be less of a "target" for kidnappers while wearing them.)


Before you fly, do you need to brush up on current security regulations and the list of items banned from US flights? Use the button above to review this information on the "Los Angeles Flights" page of this website!

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