Number of kids flying alone soars: so do airline surcharges

Child asleep in airplaneThree kids spend $700 in babysitting money to board a Southwest Airlines flight from Jacksonville, Fla. to Nashville, Tenn. alone with nary a soul asking them for identification, where they're headed, or why they're by themselves.

A 9-year-old Canadian boy is stranded for eight hours at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after a United Airlines employee forgets to retrieve him from a kids' lounge in time for his connecting flight.

Delta Airlines mixes up two kids' itineraries -- sending a boy who was supposed to go to Boston to Cleveland and a Cleveland-bound girl to the Massachusetts capital instead.

These are all recent examples of unintended consequences for kids flying by themselves -- the one in Nashville just last week. And they underscore the fact that more youngsters than ever are alone in the air, putting greater responsibility on airlines to keep track of them.

"There seems to be more unaccompanied minors on planes, possibly because more parents are divorcing and moving to different states," said Barbara Messing, general manager at

Most airlines say they don't keep figures on how many unaccompanied minors they fly every year, but industry watchers expect it's in the hundreds of thousands and climbing. The trend is making many travelers into quasi-parents -- at least for an hour or two -- whether they like it or not.

"I have heard of people being on planes and sitting next to a child and feeling compelled to order orange juice and wipe their nose," said Messing.

In recognition of the growing number of unaccompanied minors -- and the strain it puts on already harried gate agents and flight crews -- some airlines are charging heftier fees for kids to fly by themselves. Most carriers require guardians to cough up from $50 to $100 each way.

These escort fees are in addition to regular air fare costs. Southwest Airlines caused a furor among single parents earlier this year when it announced it was doubling its fee for children flying alone.

But airlines say the fees are necessary because of the extra labor involved in sending an employee to escort younger children through security and to the gate, in what Messing described as a "pretty buttoned up process."

"Thousands of children fly unaccompanied every day and they all get to their destinations in one piece as scheduled," said Messing, who added that the three examples of kids experiencing issues with flying this summer are isolated incidents.

Even so, parents who are researching sending their kids on an airplane alone for the first time may be surprised to discover that carriers set their own policies for ferrying unaccompanied minors -- known in aviation parlance as "UMs" -- with little oversight from the federal government.

Federal transportation officials charged with overseeing the airlines, however, wrote a primer for parents planning their child's first journey alone with some useful tips on how to ready kids for the trip and how to deal with the airlines.

There are some general guidelines that most airlines stick to, however, such as the fact that children may not travel alone until their fifth birthday. Most require children under seven to fly nonstop routes. Many carriers won't allow kids on red-eye flights or on the last flight of the day -- although these restrictions can vary for international flights.

Airlines' policies on unaccompanied minors can also vary, with some, such as Southwest, making it explicit on their websites that they do not monitor kids continuously on trips.

Interestingly, the airline -- which allowed the three minors to travel alone from Jacksonville to Nashville earlier this month -- says plainly on its website it does not consider kids 12 and up to be minors. It adds that even though they're not considered "legal" adults in the U.S., youngsters older than 12 are allowed to buy tickets and travel by themselves.

Most airlines, such as Delta, require guardians to complete a form with their child's name and contact information and to present this document when they check the child in. Children are required, in most cases, to wear identification during the flight and will not be let go to anyone other than the person specified on the forms the airline received from the guardian.

Unless, of course, they land in Nashville, like the trio of adventurous kids did last week, with no money, no ride and no parents.

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