I flew alone for the first time at age 13. My parents sent me to Spokane from my hometown of Seattle, a flight of all but 30 minutes aboard a yellow Hughes Airwest jet that reminded me of an enormous banana. TSA and domestic terrorism were not part of anyone’s airport conversation, and dressing up to travel by air was still considered the proper thing to do. I loved it.
The first time I sent my 8 year-old on the same flight, the scene had dramatically changed. Security was tight as a drum, my intent was clearly questioned, and my son was required to be under supervision every step of the way. All went well, though, and before I could even drive my car from the SeaTac parking garage to I-5, my sister-in-law called from the Spokane airport to say her nephew had arrived, safe and sound.
Enter the season of unaccompanied minors; kids who, for parenting plans or simple vacations must travel without an adult. In Alaska, where flying is all but required to get anywhere within a reasonable span of time, children grow up knowing how to clear security, fasten their seat belts, sit back, and enjoy their flight like little pros, and I heard from many, many now-parents who spent their childhoods flitting back and forth between Alaska and the Lower 48.
With the advent of additional security and scrutiny, unaccompanied minors and the adults who care for them must be ever-vigilant before, during, and after their young charge boards an aircraft. In an effort to partly ease my own mind (AK Kid is already pleading to go back to Seattle to visit his godparents in Port Angeles), and partly to inform folks of the rules, as murky as they may be, I did a little digging for information, outlined below:
1. Not all airlines have the same Unaccompanied Minor policies! Alaska Airlines provides formal services to kids age 5-17; other airlines may not, or may offer different services. Check and double-check the policy for your chosen airline before you book. Typically, fees range from $25/child to $50/child, depending upon the destination and airline.
2. Plan to spend a good chunk of time at the airport. Arrive two hours in advance of your child’s departure time. You must get a Gate Pass and accompany the child to the gate, then remain there until the plane enters the air (get out the tissues, first-timers). If you are meeting a child, you must obtain a Gate Pass, show photo I.D, and remain in the gate area until you are cleared for collecting your kiddo.*
3. Consider only non-stop flights. Some airlines will allow for plane changes within the same carrier, depending upon the child’s age. Some will not. You MUST review the policies of each individual airline. Non-stop flights, obviously, are much easier on everyone, but in some cases are just not possible. Know what you’re up against.
4. Instruct your kids on appropriate behavior; theirs, and from other people. This is a great time to practice the manners game, and talk about what is expected as far as following directions at a moment’s notice. Additioanll some kids can become shy when in new situations, and are hesitant to speak up if something doesn’t feel right. Write down guidelines, if you must, but make sure your child knows what to do if he or she becomes uncomfortable.
5. Identify individuals who will help your child. Meet the lead flight attendant, escort your child on the plane (advocate for this!), and instruct your young aviator to stay within sight of this person, at all times when on the ground or in the gate area. This is very important for ‘tweens, who often feel the need for independence, yet lack some of the basic “travel survival skills” for navigating busy airports.
Other considerations before you send your kid soaring into the sky:
– Maturity is not just about physical age; know your child and his or her comfort level, especially if this is his or her first flight. Some kids thrive on solo adventures, some, like mine, need a grownup along, first.
– Talk about the flying process and mechanics; everything from funny noises under their feet during the initial take-off, to how flight attendants talk during the pre-board and arrival announcements. AK Dad’s cousin, a flight attendant, was visiting as we prepared Big AK Kid for his first flight alone, and she explained it all; right down to why the captain needs a co-pilot. Role playing helps, too, and can make travel more fun for younger kids.
– Do not expect the airline to amuse your child. Send a backpack of games, books, electronics; whatever your child needs to stay occupied. Alaska Airlines usually provides DigiPlayers to all unaccompanied kids, but don’t count on it.
Flying alone is a big step for many children; with a little preparation, unaccompanied air travel can be an important milestone in your youngster’s life. I know it was for me.
*There are many, many procedures and policies that must be reviewed by parents/guardians of unaccompanied minors, and we’ve only talked about a few. Please contact your individual airline for a full list of regulations, and be sure to review them, in writing.
Find other great resources for unaccompanied minors at AirSafe.com.