Thumb-Sucker at 37,000 Feet

Airlines are paying closer heed to kids who fly alone

When Tiiu Lukk booked her 9- and 12-year-old sons on a flight from their Los Angeles home to a camp in Minnesota last summer, she paid the $25-per-child fee that American Airlines charges to keep an eye on minors traveling by themselves. But when she called the camp, the boys hadn't arrived. After nearly six hours--during which no one at American could say where they were--her sons phoned to say they had arrived safely. (They missed a connecting flight in Dallas and were put on a later plane.) American sent her an apology and travel vouchers after she wrote an angry letter. When Lukk's sons flew this year, she didn't register them as unaccompanied minors and instructed them to call her collect at every stop. "At least I trust them to do what I told them to do and call me," she says.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of children who fly alone in the U.S. each year do so uneventfully. But recent snafus show how badly things can go wrong. On July 14, America West Airlines put an 11-year-old girl on the wrong connecting flight and sent her crisscrossing the country for 12 hours before getting her to the right destination--at 7 a.m. the next day. The airline says a communication breakdown caused the mistake, which was "inexcusable."

The government offers little help. The Department of Transportation doesn't require airlines to report on lost children. "There simply aren't regulations," says Mary Schiavo, a former DOT inspector general. Airlines set their own policies, which they usually post on their Web sites.

Virtually all bar children under 5 from traveling alone and require those flying solo to register as unaccompanied minors. Age policies vary, depending on the airline and whether the child is on a direct or connecting flight. Effective Sept. 10, America West is upping the minimum age on connecting flights from 8 to 12, partly because of the July fiasco. The carriers charge a fee for unaccompanied kids--$30 to $40 each way for direct flights; $60 to $75 for domestic connecting flights--providing adult supervision until the child is met by an individual authorized by the parent.

Kids flying for the first time should do so only with an adult, experts say. For those who have flown before, David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., suggests this test: If your child can take public transportation alone to the mall, make a purchase, find the rest room, and get back home, she's likely O.K. to fly solo.

Tell your child what to expect: how long the flight will be and if there is a time change. Instruct her never to leave the gate area with anyone but the assigned airline staff. Onboard, she should direct questions and requests to flight attendants, not adults sitting nearby. Make sure she carries an ID, an itinerary, your phone numbers, and those of the adult meeting her.

Try to avoid connecting flights, even if you or the adult at the other end must drive to a more distant airport. And give your child a prepaid calling card or a cell phone. That way, you don't have to wait for the airline to tell you where your kid is.

By Aixa M. Pascual

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