Should you let your child fly alone?
Parents may wonder after a couple alleged this week that their 10-year-old daughter flying to summer camp was stranded at one of the world's busiest airports after United Airlines failed to keep track of her.
The girl ultimately made it to camp safely. But the incident highlights some of the risks of children flying alone, including the a little-known industry practice of hiring outside companies to escort kids from gate to gate.
Phoebe Klebahn was flying as an "unaccompanied minor" from San Francisco to Traverse City, Mich. with a connection in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The girl's parents, Annie and Perry Klebahn, had paid United an extra $99 to assist her during the June 30 trip.
When the first flight landed in Chicago, the company United hired apparently failed to show up.
The parents claim in a letter sent to the airline that their daughter asked for help, including the use of a cell phone, but was repeatedly told to wait by flight attendants. And it appears no one from the airline called the camp after the girl missed her connecting flight.
"She was sad and scared and no one helped," the parents wrote. They shared the letter with media though a family friend who is a business management professor.
The parents did not respond to calls seeking an interview.
The Klebahns wrote that it took them nearly an hour of frantic phone calls to get an answer from United once the camp informed them their daughter hadn't arrived at the Traverse City airport.
United, part of United Continental Holdings Inc., refused to identify the company that was supposed to look after the girl. It also declined to say if she was ever unsupervised or explain why it took so long to tell the parents where she was.
Flight attendants typically wait with children until the contractor arrives.
In a statement, the airline said it reached out to the Klebahns to apologize and is reviewing the situation. United has refunded the $99 fee and returned the frequent flier miles the family used for the flight.
Parents who need to send their kids traveling alone shouldn't fret. Hundreds of thousands of kids fly on their own each year — about 160,000 on Delta alone — although the government doesn't keep detailed data. And while there are occasional mishaps — which would petrify any parent — experts say they represent a small minority of overall trips.
"In general, it is safe. You just have to be really smart about it," said Anne Banas, executive editor of advice site SmarterTravel.com.
First off, reservations are made the old-fashioned way: by calling an airline or travel agent directly. Airlines should waive any additional phone reservation fees. You'll be charged between $25 and $100 each way for the minor in addition to airfare. When two or more children travel together, most airlines charge a single fee. And kids flying solo usually get to check their first and second bags for free.
The fee for unaccompanied minors buys a flight attendant escort on the plane and between flights, but not constant supervision. Children will likely spend some time alone, either on the plane or in an airport room away from other passengers, especially when extended layovers or delays are involved.
And while some airlines will hand off minors to other companies — usually the same ones to assist passengers in wheelchairs — not everybody follows that practice. For instance, Southwest Airlines only uses its own employees, according to spokesman Chris Mainz. Delta tries to have its own staff escort kids but spokesman Morgan Durrant notes that contractors might be used on peak days.
Delta has also set up specially supervised rooms in most of its major airports called the SkyZone — a mini-lounge for kids with snacks, beverages, video games and books.
Parents should book a nonstop flight whenever possible to minimize delays. If you must connect, avoid using two different airlines. Also choose an early flight — those are less prone to delays than later flights.
Before heading to the airport, make sure the minor has packed the following things:
— Paperwork. Kids should have a copy of their itineraries and birth certificates in their bags. The itinerary should include travel dates, flight numbers, departure and arrival times and the reservation's record locator number. You should also include the parents' or guardians' home, work and cell phone numbers.
— Snacks and cash for food. Most airlines will give children traveling alone snacks onboard like chips or cheese-and-crackers for free. But long delays can lead to growling stomachs, so give your child some traveling money. Throw in some gum to ease popping ears.
— Entertainment. Books, small toys and electronics like DVD players and iPods are great to bring onboard, especially on longer flights. Be sure to forewarn your child that they'll have to turn off electronic gadgets during takeoff and landing.
— A day's worth of essentials. Pack a change of clothes in your child's carry-on, in case a checked bag gets lost, along with a light sweater or sweat shirt for chilly planes.
— A cell phone or calling card. Kids will be more at ease — and parents will be too — when everyone stays in touch.
Get to the airport up to two hours early for drop-off. Parents have to fill out paperwork and get a gate pass to go through security. The adult picking up the child should also arrive early — by at least an hour — to fill out their share of paperwork.
Unaccompanied minors usually board first. Notifying the airline staff at the gate gives them time to find a crew member to walk the child to a seat on board. And don't leave until the flight has taken off. Flights can be cancelled hours after they've taxied from the gate.
Finally, when picking up at the airport, don't worry if you don't see the child right away. They're often the last ones off. A flight attendant will check the identification of the receiving adult, get a signature and you'll be on your way.