Katherine Landfair says putting her son, Zachary, on a plane alone for the first time was "a little scary." He was just 6 years old when he made his first solo flight.
Zachary, now 11, is a veteran of the skies, having flown unaccompanied at least once each summer -- usually to visit his grandfather in Michigan. Getting to his Michigan destination involves making a connection, but even that has gone smoothly for the youngster, thanks to the airline attendants assigned to watch over him.Landfair, who lives in Orlando, is one of thousands of parents who will put unaccompanied children on planes this summer. If you're considering letting your child fly alone for the first time, there are some things you'll need to know about the procedure. These are general guidelines; be sure to check with your airline for specific rules.
Question: At what age can my child travel unaccompanied?
Answer: Most airlines require children to be at least 5 years old to fly unaccompanied on a nonstop flight. Children ages 8 through 11 usually can fly unaccompanied on a flight that makes a connection.
Question: What if my child is younger than 5?
Answer: According to "Flying Alone," an AAA brochure, children ages 1 to 4 usually can fly when accompanied by a caretaker who is age 12 or more. That means an older sibling could accompany a younger child.
Question: Will the airline take care of my child?
Answer: Airline personnel who have been alerted to the presence of an unaccompanied child are quick to offer assistance. Make sure your child also knows he can get assistance in the air or on the ground.
Question: My child is 10 years old and must make a connecting flight. Will the airline help?
Answer: Yes, though most airlines charge a small fee -- usually from $20 to $40 -- to escort a child to a connecting flight.
Question: Will my 12-year-old need an escort?
Answer: Kids ages 12 to 15 usually are old enough to find the correct gate if it is nearby. However, if you prefer that the airline assist your child in making the connection, you can make that arrangement with the airline, though there may be a fee for the service.
Question: Should I wait until I get to the airline's check-in counter to make these arrangements?
Answer: No. Make them when you book the flight. While you're at it, ask the agent if a meal is served; you can order a kid's meal, if your child prefers one.
Question: What information will the airline require?
Answer: You'll probably be asked to fill out an "unaccompanied minor" form, which will ask for the child's name and itinerary, parents' or guardians' names and phone numbers and the name of the person who will be meeting the child at her final destination.
Question: What information should my child have?
Answer: Write down your phone numbers and the numbers of the person your child is meeting at the final destination. Also write down his flight itinerary and gate numbers. Make sure your child carries this information on his person.
AAA's "Flying Alone" has a page on back for writing down such information. To request a copy of the brochure, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to AAA National Public Relations Department, 1000 AAA Drive, Heathrow, FL 32746-5063.
Question: What else should he have with him?
Answer: He'll need his plane ticket, plus cash or a calling card for emergency phone calls. Also, consider packing a backpack with a few kid-friendly snacks and games. Katherine Landfair packs such things as colored pencils, markers, paper and a hand-held game in Zachary's pack.
Question: What if my child has never flown before?
Answer: Tell her what flying feels like. For instance, she'll hear a thump when the landing gear is raised and lowered. Tell her that the plane sometimes might feel like it's traveling on a bumpy road. Also, make sure she knows that during the flight she should stay seated with the seat belt fastened comfortably across her lap.
Question: Should my child leave the plane with the other passengers when it pulls up to the gate?
Answer: If you have requested airline assistance for your child, he should wait until the attendant comes and gets him. Older children not assisted by the airline can leave the plane as soon as the captain gives the word.
Question: Will the airline let me on the plane to say goodbye and get my child situated?
Answer: Probably not. For security reasons, unticketed people usually aren't allowed to board a plane before its flight. But it doesn't hurt to ask at the check-in counter if you can go aboard with your child to get her settled.
Question: What if the plane is rerouted before it reaches its destination?
Answer: Should this happen, airline employees will watch out for your child. But make sure he knows to contact an airline employee if no one from the airline offers assistance.
And problems do occur. For instance, Landfair said that last summer when Zachary was bumped from an overbooked connecting flight, he was escorted by an airline worker to an adult-supervised game room, where he played for several hours until the next available flight.
Question: Once my child is on the plane, is it safe to leave the airport?
Answer: Wait for several minutes after the plane is in the air. Unexpected problems could force the plane to return to the gate. If that happens, you'll want to be waiting for your child.
Question: Is it OK to book the airline's last flight of the day to my child's destination?
Answer: Avoid doing this. If the flight is canceled, your child could be stranded overnight in an unfamiliar city. Airlines usually head off this problem by barring children from taking the last flight of the day.
Question: How can I get more information on an airline's rules for unaccompanied minors?
Answer: Call your travel agent or airline and ask for specifics. Most will be glad to fax a copy of the rules.