Question: I recently put my 10-year-old daughter on an airplane from Southern California to New Jersey. Because she was flying alone, I checked in with Continental Airlines numerous times after booking the flight to ensure she would be cared for. I asked specifically if there would be television on the fight and was assured there would be. But a credit card was required for the television, so she had nothing to do for six hours. No attendant checked on her to notice this. I paid the unaccompanied minor fee on top of the already expensive ticket because I thought it would ensure special care. What exactly was the $200 fee for, if not to take care of the child on the flight?
Judy DeVine, Newport Beach
Answer: Here's what Continental said in its official response: "Continental collects a charge for unaccompanied minors to cover the extra care and service provided to children traveling alone. Children traveling alone receive personal escorts during all points of their travel."
Here's a bigger clue to what you can expect: "Airlines try to do everything necessary to make your child's trip safe and comfortable. However, you should understand that unaccompanied-minor services do not include constant supervision or entertainment during the flight." You'll find this gem in "When Kids Fly Alone," a publication by the Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division. (You can download it — it contains useful information — at airconsumer.dot.gov/pubs.htm.)
If I may read between the lines, that fee doesn't include making sure your child is not bored, especially if cabin personnel are dealing with 200 other passengers who aren't children but may act like them.
Or, said another way, flying has become so stressful and complicated that a parent of a child traveling alone needs to prepare for all sorts of contingencies, from the relatively minor problem of boredom (packing a book or quiet, age-appropriate games or activities) to the relatively major problem of passengers who behave badly. Recent published reports suggest that child molestation may be a greater problem on board than imagined because reporting standards aren't uniform. Continental's website again says that children need to be told to speak up to a uniformed flight attendant if something happens that makes him or her uncomfortable.
All of this could be part of a larger conversation with your child about what to expect, said Dr. Joshua Kellman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice and on the faculty at the University of Chicago. You're not trying to worry the child but to prepare him for the experience, which can be tough even on an adult. "You would want to discuss, 'What do you think it's going to be like with no one you know?' and 'What do you think you're going to want to do during that time?' " Kellman said. "That ought to generate a number of things that the kid can do, but maybe more importantly, I think it prepares the kid for [the trip] mentally so they know what they're getting into."
Before you ever get to that point, Kellman says, assess frankly whether your child is ready to fly alone. There's no real checklist of what Kellman calls "autonomous independent functioning" that is the giant clue to whether your child has the maturity to travel solo. There's no magic age number, either (although airlines rarely allow kids younger than 5 to travel alone). It's something a parent will intrinsically know, Kellman said.
Factoring out your anxieties, if your gut feeling is that your child won't know how to handle an emergency, whether it's stranger danger or a flight that's aborted and lands in Omaha at 9 at night, maybe you should save yourself the unaccompanied minor fee and buy yourself a ticket for the out and the back.
Will it be considerably more expensive than just the ticket and the unaccompanied minor fee? Yes. Will it be inconvenient? Yes. But expense and inconvenience were part of the package that came with your bundle of joy. And it's a small price for peace of mind, especially these days.
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