OUT OF THE BLUE
Before your child flies alone, remember Murphy's Law
By Elliott Hester
9-year-old traveling alone on my flight from Miami to New York,
Trina was the perfect little passenger. Well-mannered, independent,
and mindful of her itinerary, she knew our plane was scheduled to
arrive at 10:00 p.m., that her connecting flight would depart JFK
at 11:00, and that an hour later the plane would land at Albany's
airport, where her mother was waiting with open arms.
But Murphy's Law was in effect that night. A night cursed by a mechanical
delay. A night marred by confusion. A night that ended with Trina
far from home, sharing a hotel room with a stranger.
Allow me to explain.
Many airlines allow children ages 5 to 11 to fly solo as long as
parents pay an "escort fee" which can range from $30 to
$60 each way in addition to the price of a ticket. The fee provides
limited in-flight supervision by flight attendants and an escort
to connecting flights by airline personnel.
Having "supervised" hundreds of unaccompanied children
over the years, I can honestly say that most kids are terrific.
They watch movies, play with their own video games, occasionally
they hang out in the galley with the cabin crew. They are airborne
troopers. I've met 10-year-olds who've logged more miles than some
people achieve in a lifetime.
As is the case with adult flyers, however, occasionally an unaccompanied
child will misbehave. I've dealt with kids who cried uncontrollably,
spat food on the window, kicked the back of seats, and sprinted
up the aisle as if it were a playground.
But like I said, Trina was a dream. She sat quietly in her seat,
drinking orange juice and staring out the window at the stars. Each
time a flight attendant asked if she was okay, the little girl nodded
But when the plane landed and passengers disembarked, chaos erupted
outside the jet bridge. Due to the mechanical delay in Miami, we
had arrived almost an hour late. An apologetic agent read a list
of missed connections and offered hotel vouchers to stranded passengers.
Angry flyers voiced their displeasure. The agent seemed on the brink
Realizing that Trina's connecting flight to Albany would be departing
in minutes, Brenda, a member of my crew, offered to escort the girl
to the departure gate. The two had bonded on the airplane, after
all. Brenda's maternal instincts kicked in when she saw the agent
I agreed to watch Brenda's luggage while the she and Trina hurried
off to a far-away gate in another concourse. The remaining crew
members boarded the courtesy van and drove to the layover hotel.
After the bewildered gate agent processed the final hotel voucher,
she gathered her belongings and disappeared. It was nearly 11:20,
by then. Our flight had been among the last to arrive at JFK.
When Brenda finally returned, I was shocked to see that Trina was
with her. "The Albany flight left five minutes before we reached
the gate," she said. "The agent had already left."
Now the airport was all but deserted. We telephoned the flight service
supervisor who suggested we call crew scheduling. No course of action
was recommended. Tired, frustrated and out of options, the three
of us boarded the courtesy van and headed for the layover hotel.
After several attempts, Brenda finally reached Trina's mother by
telephone. She assured the worried woman that Trina would be safe.
And she was. Trina slept comfortably in the additional bed in Brenda's
hotel room. The next morning we escorted her to the Albany flight.
An hour later mother and daughter were reunited.
As long as children fly solo there's sure to be occasional mishaps.
Two years ago, the parents of 9-year-old Kevin O'Brien spent a frantic
afternoon searching for their son. Stormy weather had forced the
cancellation of his LaGuardia to Richmond flight the night before.
After overnighting alone in a New York motel (monitored by an airline
agent), he was placed on another flight. But for several hours US
Airways representatives could not tell the parents which flight
their son was on, or at which D.C.-area airport he would be landing.
In April, a 10-year-old unaccompanied boy was turned over to police
and sent to a children's home because his father failed to meet
him upon arrival in Hong Kong. The boy's mother had put him on an
Air Canada flight in Toronto. The father agreed to meet the flight
when it arrived. But after phoning the father's office repeatedly,
Hong Kong authorities were unable to locate him.
Four years ago, Northwest Airlines was sued by the parent of a stranded
6-year-old. The child missed a connecting flight in Minneapolis-St.
Paul due to a January snow storm. He was placed in a hotel room
with a 14-year-old who had also missed a connection. The younger
boy's mother claimed that while a security guard stood outside the
door, her son was sexually abused by the teenager.
According to the Air Transport Association, more than 7 million
children ages 5-11 fly solo each year. Hundreds of thousands more,
ages 12-17, are enrolled in "unaccompanied child" programs.
This means millions of dollars in profit for an airline.
Though carriers will welcome your child with open arms, all children
are not fit to fly alone. Know whether your child is mature enough
to handle the trip. I've seen terrified children at the departure
gate, crying as their parent walked away.