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Airline blunders raise worry about youngsters flying alone

Tom Fontaine
| Monday, July 26, 2010

Joel Rising used to drop off his young daughters at their gate and then remain in Pittsburgh International Airport's Airside Terminal, looking out a window until the plane carrying them faded from view.

"It was heart-wrenching," said Rising, 41, a California native who moved to Mt. Lebanon four years ago.

Every time daughters Zoe and Maisie flew between their mother's California home and Southwestern Pennsylvania, Rising said, he worried until each flight touched down safely. Rising said his ex-wife, Letty, had similar emotions.

The children — now 13 and 11, respectively — encountered few complications and became savvier travelers than most adults. Their parents learned to cope better, something that became easier when Letty moved to the East Coast and the children's back-and-forth flights about four times a year shortened.

Things go smoothly for most of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors who use commercial airlines each year. Summer is the busiest season for children flying solo, when many travel to summer camps or to see parents or other relatives, airline officials say.

Although the government doesn't track the number of unaccompanied minors on airlines, it does track related complaints. Since 2005, 286 complaints were filed with the Department of Transportation regarding unaccompanied-minor service, about four a month.

Still, some high-profile blunders raised questions about the service airlines actually provide youngsters flying solo — particularly as fees for the service go up along with most other airline fees.

This month, Continental Airlines on the same day mistakenly sent a 9-year-old boy to Cleveland instead of Boston and a 10-year-old girl to Boston instead of Cleveland. A Chicago man sued Southwest Airlines, claiming flight attendants didn't stop a drunken woman from making sexual advances and offering drugs to his 14-year-old son.

"People are paying higher fees for added supervision of their children, but often the children aren't being watched very well, if they're being watched at all," said Kate Hanni, founder of .

Airline rules and fees vary.

All major carriers require children to be at least 5 years old to fly solo, but mandatory service and related fees apply to children up to 12 years old on some airlines and up to 15 years old on others. Parents can request extra supervision for older children, but it is not required.

Rules vary on types of flights that children of differing ages can take. Several airlines, for example, allow younger children to take only nonstop or direct flights, not connecting flights that require them to change planes.

US Airways, the busiest carrier at Pittsburgh International, doesn't allow any children younger than 15 who are flying alone to take connecting flights. It's the most restrictive policy among major carriers.

"Allowing connections has a lot of complexity, and it creates a lot of opportunities (for the airline) to fail," said US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant.

Fees range from $25 to $100 each way. They increased steadily during the past two years, said Mike Federico of . Even Southwest Airlines — which built an advertising campaign around the claim it doesn't "nickel-and-dime" customers — went from charging nothing to carry unaccompanied minors two years ago to $50 each way today.

As a way to generate revenue, airlines two years ago began imposing fees for many services and amenities that once were free or included in air fares, including charging for first and second checked bags, onboard meals and assigned seating. A study released last week showed such ancillary fees generated $13.5 billion for airlines last year.

The study by consulting firm IdeaWorks and travel transaction processor Amadeus didn't specify how much money unaccompanied-minor fees generated.

"Of all the fees, that is the one that has created the least amount of consumer angst because there is an expectation on the part of the consumer that a real service will be provided," said IdeaWorks President Jay Sorensen.

Additional Information:

Keeping kids safe

Tips for parents sending children on a flight by themselves:

• Book nonstop or direct flights, if possible.

• Put a note or name tag on your child's clothing that says where he or she is traveling. Put a similar note in the backpack with your cell, home and work phone numbers. Include a copy of the child's itinerary, airline and flight number.

• Tell your child to ask the flight attendant when boarding where the plane is headed.

• If your child is old enough to fly alone, he or she is old enough to use a cell phone; program family members' numbers into it.

• Pack a lunch for your child and include treats and toys in the backpack.

• Be there for arrivals and departures. Ask the airline for a gate pass so you can go through security checkpoints and accompany your child to the departure gate.

Source:, Department of Transportation

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