Flying Solo

More than a million children will fly alone this year, with the majority flying during the summer. Most children travel to visit noncustodial parents, relatives or to attend residential camps. Nearly 100,000 unaccompanied minors traveled with U.S. Airways in 2007, and Northwest Airlines transported 146,000 children last year.

Flying alone is both exciting and scary, but with some preparation and advice, it can be a great experience. Here’s what you should know to prepare your child (and yourself) for her first solo flight.

Airline policies
In general, children younger than 5 are not allowed to travel unaccompanied. Children ages 5 to 7 may fly alone, but only on nonstop flights with the exception of Delta, which allows connections. Youth ages 8 to 14 can take connecting flights on the same airline.

To make sure kids arrive safely, airlines offer an unaccompanied minor program. The service is required for children younger than 15, but it can be requested for young adults ages 15 to 17 on most airlines.

Preparing for the trip

If possible, take your child to the airport before her first time flying alone. Information is the key to helping her feel confident. Show her the security checkpoint, explain what will happen and point out uniformed personnel from the airline she’s booked on. Watch planes take off and land. Also go over common concerns she might have while in the air. For example, when is it okay to leave your seat and go to the bathroom? Where is the motion sickness bag? What is turbulence?

Get your child excited about the journey. Give an older child a camera and a list of items to find and photograph for a photo safari. Or have him describe the details of his trip in a fun, colorful journal. Be upbeat and positive, and make it seem like an adventure.

What to pack

Create an information packet for your child that includes all flight information, contact information for yourself and the person picking up your child, and emergency numbers in case you can’t be reached.

“Make sure they have plenty to occupy them, and make them hit the bathroom before the flight,” recommends Kia Slade, a Raleigh mom whose daughter, Lindsay, first flew solo to visit her grandparents when she was 7. Pack a carry-on with snacks, quiet toys, books and crayons. Give your child a small amount of cash so he can purchase some food at the airport or during the flight.

“We recommend that the child have a cell phone with them while traveling, just in case,” says Darcy Grimes, manager of travel marketing for AAA Carolinas. “We have had children who were not met on their connection, and we were able to walk them through the connecting process this way via phone.”

Prepare for the unexpected

The recent deluge of flight cancellations has many parents wondering what happens when a child is stranded alone. If the departing flight is delayed or cancelled, the airline will help you make arrangements for a later flight, and you will need to remain with your child until takeoff.

If a delay or cancellation occurs en route, airline personnel will stay with your child while they book another flight. “We have staff who provide continuous supervision,” says Michelle Aguayo-Shannon, media relations manager for Northwest Airlines. “During this time, we’re in contact with the parent or guardian at the destination regarding changes in flight plans, and we consult with them prior to making any arrangements.”

In rare cases, such as in a major snowstorm, a child may need to stay overnight. Most airlines will assign an airline employee of the same sex to supervise your child at a hotel, while a few airlines will turn your child over to the local welfare agency for the night. To avoid overnight issues, try to book the first flight of the day to provide plenty of time to arrange a same-day alternative flight if necessary.

At the airport

All airlines require you to fill out an unaccompanied minor form at check-in with your contact information and the contact information for the person picking up your child. Airlines only will release your child to this individual, who needs to arrive at least 30 minutes early, show proper identification and sign a release form.

“Parents may request security passes from the airline counter so they may accompany the child through security to the gate and wait with them until boarding/take off,” Grimes says. “The same is true when picking up.”

Once you reach the gate and the plane is ready, “the gate agent specially delivers the child to the lead flight attendant,” says U.S. Airways representative Michelle Mohr. “The lead attendant lets the rest of the flight attendant team know there is an unaccompanied minor and where the child is seated. When the child arrives [at the destination], she’s escorted by the flight attendants to the gate agent.”

Your child will get to board first. “The extra time allows our flight attendants to personally speak with the child to discuss safety and other features of the plane,” says Kelly Cripe, a public relations specialist for Continental. You’ll need to wait at the gate until the plane departs.

While it might be hard to part with your child before her first flight, don’t worry too much, says former Southwest flight attendant Andrea Leckie, whose son has flown alone since he was 7. “It’s important for parents to remember that 99 percent of the time, as soon as their child is seated on the plane, the tears seem to disappear,” she says. “I found that the kids really enjoyed their grown-up experience of flying alone. They loved being able to select their very own beverage from the soft drink menu!”
Kyla Steinkraus flew for the first time when she was 15 — alone. She is the founder of the family travel Web site

What You’ll Pay

Here are one-way unaccompanied-minor fees for five popular airlines servicing the Raleigh-Durham International Airport:

Nonstop: $75
Connecting: $100

All flights: $100

American Airlines
All flights: $75

Nonstop: $50
Connecting: $100

U.S. Airways
All flights: $50