When Kids Shuttle between Homes after the Split
Children and Holidays: What a Parent Should Know about Airline Travel for Kids
It was Christmas Eve when the airline ticket agent told Gretchen Suthon that her son couldn’t fly alone to see his father because his flight had a connection in Baltimore.”I have this 8-year-old in tears, saying ‘I’ve got to go home to Virginia,'” says Suthon of Birmingham, Ala. “I said, ‘Isn’t there any other way?’ They said, ‘Not unless you have somebody in Baltimore to meet him.'”
Luckily, Suthon’s ex-husband was in the military, and as a result, they had friends all over the world, including in Baltimore. Suthon says she told the ticket agent, “Give me 10 minutes.”She called her friends and though they hadn’t seen her son in years, she says they were thrilled to meet him at the airport and escort him to his connecting flight.
Holiday time is the second busiest time of year for minors flying alone, after summertime, according to airline experts. Many of those fliers are the children of divorced parents who are under court order to get their kids to the other parent for the holidays. That means they have no choice but to become familiar with what the airlines call their “unaccompanied minor” policies and figure out the best way to get their children where they’re going safely.
An increasing number of flight delays and the post 9-11 security measures are the biggest challenges unaccompanied minors and their parents face, experts say.Kids travel expert Eileen Ogintz, a syndicated columnist and publisher of the travel website www.takingthekids.com says planning ahead helps. “It’s just a matter of being smart about it,” she says.
KNOW THE AIRLINE POLICY
These policies differ from airline to airline and can change frequently.Shawn Habibi, who runs The Trusted Traveler (www.thetrustedtraveler.com), a service that provides trained adults to escort children on domestic and international flights, provides links to most of the domestic and international airlines’ unaccompanied minor policies at (www.unaccompaniedminor.net). He provides unaccompanied minor forms parents can download at (http://www.unaccompaniedminor.net/links_of_pdf_forms.html).
Most airlines will not allow a child younger than five to fly alone, although some will allow them to fly with an older sibling. Most will take children up to age 12 as unaccompanied minors and many charge fees ranging from $50 and up for the service, which usually involves extra attention from gate agents and flight attendants. Some airlines treat children older than 12 as adults, but they will offer assistance to teenagers if a parent pays the unaccompanied minor fee.
Experts say parents should make sure they are aware of the level of assistance the airlines will provide for their child and they should find out what they need to do to make sure their child gets the help they might need. Sometimes this involves having forms filled out properly, arranging for another adult to meet a child at the destination and making sure the child wears identification the airline might provide for unaccompanied minors.
Habibi’s firm will provide children with an escort, usually with experience in law enforcement, the airline industry or nursing for their journey. His company’s fees run from $500 to $900 for domestic flights and from $900 to $1,500 for international flights. His escorts deliver the child door to door and handle all paperwork and any arrangements, such as booking a hotel room or re-booking a flight if flights are canceled or delayed. And he says his agents stay in constant contact with parents during the journey.
Habibi says he’s helped out a number of divorced clients whose children are too young to travel without an adult.”They have custody issues and they can’t resolve who is going to do what so they hire our company,” says Habibi, a former member of the U.S. Army who started his secure point-to-point service company after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
BOOK A NON-STOP FLIGHT
Book your child on a non-stop, direct (a flight that makes a stop but doesn’t require a plane change) or early in the day flight whenever possible. Many airlines will not book unaccompanied minors on the last flight of the day to avoid stranding a child if that last flight is canceled for any reason. If your child does need to make a connection, make certain you understand the airline’s policy on unaccompanied minors making connections.
Talk to your child about how to handle any problems that could arise. Before their trip, Ogintz recommends parents play the “What If?” game with their kids.
She says to ask them, “What if your flight is delayed and you miss your connection? What if you get stranded overnight?”
“They need to know where they’re going and who’s supposed to pick them up and they should have a laminated card in their pocket with everybody’s phone numbers just in case something happens,” says Ogintz.
Ogintz says her own teen-age daughter knew to speak up when she realized a flight she made alone was delayed so long that she would miss her connection. The agents re-booked her on another flight. “The teens are the ones I worry about the most,” says Ogintz. “It’s very easy for them to fall through the cracks.” She says even teens as old as 16 need to know what to do if they miss their connecting flight or if their plane is diverted or delayed.
“They need to know to identify themselves to a flight attendant and say, ‘I’m traveling alone to my father’s house.'”
Ogintz says when children run into problems they should know they can seek out the Travelers Aid program available at some major airports (www.travelersaid.org).
KEEP KIDS ENTERTAINED
When children encounter a problem on their trip, Ogintz suggests they use a well-charged cell phone to call their parents and then hand that phone to the airline worker so that the worker can communicate directly with the parent. She says parents who call the airline to find out the status of their children can have trouble getting through to someone at the gate who knows what’s happening with their kids.
Suthon says she’s had airlines refuse to tell her if her child was even on a flight if she couldn’t provide them with a confirmation number.”I would say, ‘I’m an hour from the airport and if you don’t tell me if he’s on that flight, you’ll be stuck with an 8-year-old in the airport until I get there.”She says that usually got her the information she needed.
Children should also fly with money, warmer clothes, food and entertainment that will last longer than the scheduled flight time.Ogintz says, “You can’t really rely on airline personnel to do anything on the plane for kids anymore. They need to have their own entertainment, their own food, money in case they need it, a sweatshirt in case they get cold. They could be in a situation where they could be stuck for hours on the tarmac. They need to have healthy food to eat, sandwiches, an energy bar a bottle of water they can refill.”
She says a temporary credit card, like Visa TravelMoney, with a limited amount of money on it is also a good idea in the event they need to take a taxi or pay for a hotel room.
GET A GATE PASS
Get a gate pass so you can accompany your child through security and to the boarding gateMost airlines will provide parents with a gate pass at the check-in counter. The pass allows a parent to escort their child through security and to the gate. However, gate pass policies also change frequently and Ogintz says while airlines will typically let you accompany a young child through security, they may not be willing to let you escort a teenager. “It depends on what their mood is,” she says.
It also depends on whether or not there is a security alert on a given day.Habibi says most U.S. legacy airlines usually provide gate passes for parents of children flying alone, but that it is handled on a case by case basis. And, if the national security level goes up for any reason, “Nobody is going to issue gate passes.” He says a boost in the national security alert can also mean that airlines will simply refuse to transport unaccompanied minors until the alert is lifted.
Suthon says that after 9-11, airport security procedures “really complicated things.”
“When you went to pick them up, you had to arrive two hours early to stand in a line that wrapped around the while airport to go through the security checkpoint and then to the gate.”She says a trip to pick up her kids could take six to seven hours.
KEEP POSITIVE FOR KIDS
Suthon says there have been plenty of times when she was nervous about putting her children on a plane. Her youngest had to fly shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001 “I tried really hard not to show my concern when I wasn’t sure if I would fly,” she said. “I had a court order that said he must get on an airplane and so he did.”
Another time, when her son was 12 and old enough to be flying as an adult, she refused to put him on a plane one weekend where snow and sleet might have delayed his connecting flight in a city where she didn’t have family who could come to his aid.
Ogintz says that while it’s important to prepare kids well for anything that could happen on a trip, it’s also important not to freak them out.”If you’re really nervous, the kids will be nervous. Make them see it as an adventure. Tell them you know they can handle this and you’ll be a phone call away if they need help.”
Stacey Tiedge Alatzas of Bel Air, Md., is a freelance journalist, blogger and new media consultant with 12 years of experience writing and editing for daily newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.