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Taking the Kids

Fledgling Flights

August 20, 1995|EILEEN OGINTZ

One recent morning at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, 10-year-old Lauren Economou wasn't the least bit nervous as she waited for her connecting flight. She was flying home to San Diego, following a visit to Connecticut to see her grandparents, and she was prepared for every contingency: Her gym bag was stocked with tiny troll dolls, a hand-held video game, art supplies and plenty of snacks and gum.

"Kids shouldn't be scared to fly alone," Lauren said.

"Just bring a lot of stuff to do," added 11-year-old Jessica Reiff, who was en route from Minneapolis to meet her grandparents in Philadelphia.

When I spoke with them, these children were among the two dozen or so who were playing cards, drinking soda, telling jokes and watching movies in a special room set up by United Airlines at O'Hare this summer. It is one of several at hub airports including Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.

While parents tend to worry about everything that might go wrong, the kids act as if it's no big deal to travel on their own. Maybe that's because so many of them do it routinely: Airlines estimate that hundreds of thousands of children--some as young as 5 are now flying unaccompanied across the country and abroad each year.

(For a "Flying Alone" pamphlet full of practical tips from the American Automobile Assn., send a self-addressed stamped legal-size envelope to Flying Alone, Mail Stop 800, 1000 AAA Drive, Heathrow, FL 32746-5063.)

So many children are flying both with their families, and without, this summer that Delta created staffed and toy-stocked Dusty's Dens at eight airports around the country, including LAX. The toy rooms and lounges are open through Labor Day for unaccompanied minors, as well as to give parents a place to go with their children while waiting for flights. (Call 800-392-KIDS to find out about Dusty's Dens.)

Some airlines charge nothing for supervising youngsters if the children are flying nonstop and are under 12. (U.S. airlines only allow children between 5 and 8 to fly solo on direct flights.) Other airlines, including United, have begun charging $30 for the service.

Even parents of young teens--who are allowed to travel without escort--prefer the peace of mind that paying the fee and having their child identified as an unaccompanied minor ensures. "It provides a sense of security for David, especially if a flight is delayed," said Darlene Greenhaw, a Virginia sales executive whose 12-year-old son flies frequently on his own to his dad's home in Florida. Her advice: Make sure the child knows exactly what to expect, from how long the flight and layover will last to who is meeting him at the other end.

Airline officials ask parents to tell teens to identify themselves to flight attendants if their planes are delayed or diverted. That way airline employees can make sure the teens are fed and housed should the need arise.

On a recent morning at O'Hare, United's Lyn Dade looked over the bustling scene in the airline's kids' room, which is brightly decorated with children's drawings. Dade is the customer service supervisor in charge of the area. A group of boys was playing the card game Uno, some girls were watching a movie, a few kids sat bent over video games while others were engrossed in magazines.

Of course there are surprises. One summer night, when the Midwest was plagued with thunderstorms, Dade set up two supervised dorms at the airport for 55 stranded young travelers.

Dade recommends booking a direct flight when possible, and avoiding the last flight of the day. Pack a sweat shirt and school lunch in children's backpacks. Send along some spending money in case they want to watch a pay movie on the flight or buy a treat at the airport. And make sure the proper paperwork is filed. "You wouldn't believe how many surprises we get each day--kids we weren't expecting," she said.

Each summer, Dade hires and trains 75 college students as escorts/counselors to help entertain young passengers and get them to and from the proper gates. The escorts have plenty to keep them busy. In one day, as many as 500 unaccompanied youngsters may connect through O'Hare.

Just ask 12-year-old David Greenhaw. "I've flown 100 times by myself," boasted the seventh-grader from Fairfax, Va. He's probably not that far off, said his mother Darlene in a telephone conversation later.

David has been flying alone since he was 5, she explained. His mom makes sure he has every emergency number he could possibly need carefully stashed in his backpack. And he's instructed to telephone her as soon as he arrives at his destination. David, meanwhile, knows what he needs to survive: plenty of comic books.

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Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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