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Holiday Travel Guide | KIDS

This Season, a New Game Plan for Children on the Fly

Airlines transport unaccompanied minors by the hundreds of thousands, but since Sept. 11, some carriers have changed their rules and procedures.

November 18, 2001|EILEEN OGINTZ

In the coming weeks, thousands of parents will put their kids on planes by themselves. The number of children flying solo has never been higher, industry officials say, with some kids as young as 5 commuting between parents' homes, even flying overseas. Others fly to visit grandparents or cousins, go to school or camp, even meet Mom or Dad at the end of a business trip for a few days of R&R. The holidays have always been an especially popular time for such trips.

"We've seen a 10% increase just this year," said Northwest Airlines spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch in late August. He noted that the Minneapolis-based carrier handles 172,000 unaccompanied children every year.

Because of changes in security as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some carriers have revised regulations on minors traveling solo.

Since Sept. 11, carriers including US Airways, United, American and Delta have said they will accept unaccompanied minors between the ages of 5 and 11 only on nonstop flights. (Children younger than 5 may not fly unaccompanied.) America West instituted that same policy last summer, after two incidents in which children on connecting flights were put on the wrong plane. And Continental is among the airlines that will not carry unaccompanied children on the last flight of the day. Check the airline's Web site or call for the latest regulations.

The government does not regulate airlines' policies or fees for unaccompanied minors. Most charge about $30 in addition to the ticket price. On most airlines, kids older than 12 do not have to be identified as unaccompanied minors, though parents may choose to designate them as such (and thereby request airline supervision). Northwest is an exception; that airline still will carry unaccompanied minors on connecting flights, but it requires unaccompanied youths up to age 15 to be supervised by airline personnel.

The airlines say they will not charge to rebook if your child was scheduled on a connecting flight. If connections are the only way to get your child to his destination, you may have to accompany him part of the way or consider an alternate form of transportation. Keep in mind that flight schedules have been reduced by 15% to 20%, according to the Air Transport Assn.

Despite added security, those with younger children can still take them to the departure gate and wait for them at the arrival gate, airlines say. Just make sure to allow plenty of time; even if your child has an electronic ticket, you'll have to wait in line at the ticket counter to fill out the necessary forms and get a special pass to go through security to the gate.

Remind those picking up your child that they'll have to go through the same procedure and will need to show photo identification. Most important, their names must match the ones you have designated on the airline form. You may want to authorize more than one person to pick up your child.

Besides the flight preparations, you also need to talk with your children about their anxieties.

For the past five years, the Tash kids routinely flew on their own every month between their mother's home in Connecticut and their father's in Florida. But not anymore.

"Since Sept. 11, they're more scared to fly by themselves than I am to put them on the plane," said their mom, Denise Bloodgood, an architect. "Now one of us is flying them back and forth. Even my 12-year-old son doesn't want to go alone."

No matter how nervous they may be, many divorced parents don't have a choice. Nor can they afford the time or ticket to accompany their children.

That's why, when preparing children or teens for a flight, it's important to talk about their fears and your own concerns. Point out the extra security measures and guards. Remind them to leave their toy swords, knives and plastic water guns at home. Take the scissors out of the travel art kit.

Reassure your children that you are doing everything you can to make sure they're safe and that they will be able to reach you the day they are flying. If they are old enough, give them a cell phone so they can call you if necessary. (Just make sure they know they can't use the phone while airborne.)

Be sure to give them an index card with their itinerary, your cell phone, office and pager numbers and the same for the people who are meeting them. Arrange to have a backup person available to field their calls any time during the day if you can't be near the phone.

Make sure the kids have plenty to eat and to do. Stashing a brown-bag lunch in their backpack is a good idea. A new deck of cards, a Barbie, Matchbox cars, an electronic game or a CD is bound to perk up even the most nervous young flier.

Just don't forget extra batteries.

Tips for Traveling Kids Before your children get on a plane, play the "what if" game:

What if the flight is diverted? Teens should identify themselves to airline personnel and explain that they are traveling alone. They need to immediately call whoever is supposed to pick them up.

What if they get sick or spill a drink on their clothes during the flight? Parents should always pack an extra shirt in a kid's carry-on backpack.

What if they get hungry? Let them help pack their food and snacks to make sure they include plenty of things they like.

What if Grandma isn't there to meet them? Reassure them that airline officials will take care of them until someone arrives. Make sure teens who haven't been designated as unaccompanied minors know they should identify themselves to airline personnel and ask for help.

What if there's no movie? Don't expect a flight attendant to entertain your children. Kids need enough toys, games and CDs to amuse themselves for the duration of the flight.

*

Eileen Ogintz writes the "Taking the Kids" column.

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