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What to know about airline unaccompanied minors policies

by Staff

Airports can be stressful even for frequent travelers, so you can imagine how that stress is amplified if you’re a child — or a parent putting your child on a flight as an unaccompanied minor.

Many airlines offer unaccompanied minor services, which require additional safety precautions and services aimed at making a child’s flight experience as supervised and entertaining as possible. The services include wristbands for scanning at various checkpoints and child-exclusive lounges in major cities.

But things can go wrong, and have recently. Last month, a 6-year-old was placed on the wrong Spirit Airlines flight in Philadelphia and ended up in Orlando instead of Fort Myers, Fla. Days later, a 16-year-old boarded the wrong Frontier Airlines flight and landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of Cleveland. A month earlier, a Florida mom filed a lawsuit alleging that her two sons were left in a “cold room akin to a jail cell without food, water or a blanket” after their connecting flight on American Airlines was canceled.

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If you’re a family needing these services, here are a few things to know about airlines’ unaccompanied minor policies.

Who is considered an unaccompanied minor?

Children as young as 5 are eligible to register for accompaniment services, and anyone under that age is usually prohibited from traveling alone, according to the Department of Transportation. Airlines will usually allow minors to sign up for unaccompanied services up to age 17.

DOT doesn’t have specific regulations on travel involving unaccompanied minors, so policies on this, including minimum and maximum ages, are typically set by individual airlines. Most allow children to travel by themselves once they are 15, but a few allow this as early as 12. Anything younger than this, and airlines usually require parental permission for unaccompanied travel.

These procedures also vary depending on whether the child is taking a domestic or international flight.

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What are airline policies for unaccompanied minors?

Some carriers will not accept a reservation for an unaccompanied minor that involves a connection to the last flight of the day or a connection to/from another airline. Some airlines don’t permit unaccompanied minors to use connections at all. Here are other policies:

  • American Airlines: Children ages 5-14 are required to sign up for unaccompanied minor services if traveling alone; the airline says it is optimal for those 15 to 17. They are able to take advantage of early boarding procedures, visit kids-only lounges at airports in hub cities and be escorted through flight connections and until their authorized adult has picked them up once they have landed. Unaccompanied children ages 5 to 7 can do only nonstop flights; ages 8 to 14 can fly on some connecting flights.
  • Delta Air Lines: Children ages 5-7 are allowed to travel alone only on nonstop flights, and those 8 to 14 can fly on select connecting flights. If they are on a layover, they will be escorted by a Delta or business-partner employee through these stops. They are also given a wristband to scan through Delta checkpoints until they’ve boarded their flight. They are required to bring photo identification and a contact phone number, plus the name, address and phone number of the adult meeting them at their destination.
  • United Airlines: Children ages 5-14 are allowed to travel alone only on nonstop flights and are required to use the airline’s unaccompanied minor services. They are also able to meet the pilot and are escorted to their seat, where flight attendants check on them throughout their journey. For international flights, agents will meet them at the ticket counter and escort them. After the flight lands, an agent will escort the child to their designated person for pickup. Procedures on this vary depending on domestic and international flights.
  • Southwest Airlines: The airline’s unaccompanied minor program is only for children ages 5 to 11, and they are not allowed to travel on connecting flights. Multiple children are able to travel on the same reservation, but travel fees would apply for each child. Children 12 and older can use the airline’s Young Traveler program.
  • Frontier Airlines: Children under 15 are not allowed to travel alone and are required to be on the same reservation as an adult accompanying them.

How much do unaccompanied minor services cost?

Airlines fees for unaccompanied minor services are based on round or one-way trips, and fees might be higher for international flights. Some carriers might charge a fee only if there is a connecting flight. If you also have two or more children on the same reservation, some airlines charge only a single fee. These charges are separate from the cost of the airfare itself, according to the DOT. American, United and Delta’s rates start at $150 per flight.

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How should parents arrange flight details?

Most airlines require children traveling as unaccompanied minors to have a reservation and generally don’t allow standby travel. The DOT recommends asking airlines about reserving a child’s meal in advance if there is meal service. Delta recommends packing snacks, games, books or other entertainment for unaccompanied minors, as well as attaching ID cards and contact information to their carry-on bags or jackets.

Parents should also ask airlines about giving their children an electronic ticket, which can be scanned on a phone or device, regardless of whether the airline provides them with a paper ticket. This helps to ensure that tickets are not lost or forgotten. For international flights, certain countries require unaccompanied minors to have a letter of consent, which needs to be notarized in some cases, the DOT said. Parents should check in with the embassy or consulate of the destination country for specific requirements.

How do unaccompanied minors go through TSA?

Children are required to check in at the airport ticket counter if traveling alone, and parents can opt for a “gate pass” to accompany their kids through Transportation Security Administration screening to the departure gate. Some airlines require this. Parents might also need to submit an unaccompanied minor form.

Setting up unaccompanied minor service could take time, so parents and children should arrive to the airport as early as possible to perform these steps.

Each adult going to the gate will need a government-issued photo ID and should give this information to the person meeting their child at their destination airport and/or returning flights. Airlines and travel agents are not responsible for ensuring that your child has the required international travel documents, but they sometimes can provide useful information.

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What are airlines responsible for with unaccompanied minors?

The airline will release children only to the person listed on the unaccompanied minor form. This person will need to show identification, so don’t send someone else to pick up your child at the last minute.

Many airlines also do not permit their employees to administer medication to passengers, so if your child needs medication that they cannot take unassisted for the duration of the flight, the DOT recommends consulting with your doctor for alternatives. And although airlines work to create a safe and comfortable environment for children, the agency stressed that these services do not include constant supervision or entertainment during flights.

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