What to consider before sending your children alone (as an unaccompanied minors) on a flight:
Are you thinking about letting your child to fly alone, as an Unaccompanied Minor, this summer for the first time? Maybe your child is still to young to fly alone, but you’ve wondered at what age he will be old enough? Every airline has different rules about the minimum age at which a child can travel alone, but even if it’s permitted, your child might not be ready.
(This post was first published on June 22, 2012 and updated on June 23, 2016.)
When I asked my friends and fellow airline co-workers when they would feel comfortable sending their child to fly on their own, I got mixed responses. In general people felt comfortable letting a mature 10 year old fly alone. Some parents felt that although their child was mature enough at 7, they wouldn’t let even their 13 year old travel alone because they don’t trust the other people on the plane and in the airport.
I’m not sure when I’ll allow my daughter Ella to fly alone. She is now eight, and I would not feel comfortable sending her on a flight as an unaccompanied minor. A lot depends on your child. Not just their maturity, but how they respond to different circumstances. I will say that as a flight attendant, I personally feel that under age 7 is definitely too young. Think about off-schedule operations like a medical emergency causing the need to land in another city. Would your child be able to handle the stress and uncertainty of a situation like this? Of course airline personnel will be responsible for and care for your child, but will the unexpected change in plans greatly upset your child? If so, he/she is too young to fly alone.
What you need to know before sending your children as unaccompanied minors:
There is no babysitter on board.
Although you pay an extra fee for your child to fly alone, this is not a babysitting service and all that is promised is that the agent will hand the child off to the flight attendants and upon arrival the flight attendants hand the child off to the agent or party picking them up. They check the ID of the person picking the child up before releasing them. In flight there is not a designated flight attendant to care for or entertain your child. The flight attendants check on your child as they are able, but on most flights there is only enough time to get your child settled in their seat, brief them on emergency procedures, and inflight to offer a drink and snack. On a full flight there is rarely time sit and chat or play with your child.
Stay at the gate until the plane departs.
You are responsible to stay with your child until they board the plane and it is important that you stay at the gate until the plane pushes back. I recommend that you stay an extra 30 minutes or so to make sure the plane takes off and doesn’t return to the gate with mechanical problems. (I once had a 5 year old unaccompanied minor whose aunt dropped her off and didn’t stay. We ended up with a 3 hour delay waiting for a new aircraft. The poor girl just had to sit with me while we waited. Luckily I’m a person who loves kids and I did my best to entertain her.)
Tell your child to report anything odd.
You should tell your child that if anyone makes him/her feel uncomfortable, he should let an agent or flight attendant know. Give him permission to report this no matter what the other circumstances are (seatbelt sign on, etc.) so that if some creep is sitting by him they will not feel ashamed to tell someone. I hope that by giving your child permission to report something he/she is unsure about, this will help give them confidence an can stop a terrible incident like this one. As a flight attendant, I always try to tell kids this, but we are not trained to. Agents don’t always know who the person is sitting next to your child. They will try to sit unaccompanied kids together if possible, but now flights are more full and it is difficult to rearrange seating.
Don’t let a potential runaway fly alone.
If you have a teenager who really thinks they are above the rules and they don’t need the U.M. services, you shouldn’t send them alone. Flight attendants remind the child to stay seated until everyone is off the aircraft, but they cannot always tell if someone tries to get off the plane alone. The flight attendant at the door sometimes has other distractions or responsibilities during deplaning and can’t always see every person that exits the plane.
I once had a 14 year old on my flight who thought he was too cool to be escorted to his dad. I realized before every passenger got off the plane that he had escaped, but with minimum crew I wasn’t allowed (per FAA) to leave the aircraft until all passengers had deplaned. I finally was able to run out to find him and luckily found him in baggage claim with his dad. His dad thought nothing of it, so you see where the teen got his attitude that rules don’t matter. But this could have been a runaway opportunity if that is what the kid planned to do. Know your child. If they are not trustworthy, don’t send them alone.
Pack toys and snacks for your child.
Send a small bag on board with your kid with things to keep them entertained. Make sure it’s small enough to keep under his seat. Label EVERYTHING with their name and phone number. Make sure that the person helping them pack for the return flight also sends them with something to do in flight. On one of my flights a young child had NOTHING to do for the 3 hour flight. No book or toy, not anything. When I told the mother picking her up she said that she sent a bag full of books, toys and a Nintendo DS on the outbound flight. The child said they were packed in her checked bags. On most airlines there are not toys or entertainment systems on the flight for the U.M.s!
Emphasize proper etiquette for flying.
Hopefully your child has flown with you many times and you have already taught them basic airline etiquette. If not, make sure you do before they go. The flight attendant call buttons are not a toy and are not to be pushed every 5 minutes. Basically they are for emergencies or for if the seatbelt sign is on but you need something that can’t wait for the next time the flight attendant walks by. (Creepy person making you uncomfortable is a good reason to use the call light.) See my post 5 Things to Teach Your Kids When Flying and review them with your child.
If siblings are traveling alone together, remind them to keep their voices at an acceptable “indoor voice” level. Remind them that arguing/fighting is NOT acceptable behavior. If you can’t trust them to behave without intervention, they shouldn’t be flying without an adult.
There have been only a couple of kids on my flights who I thought should not be flying alone. The majority of Unaccompanied Minors I have had on my flights have been competent and adorable. So don’t let these reminders scare you out of letting your child fly. Just be sure that he/she really is ready and can be responsible. If you have any questions about kids flying alone, feel free to ask them in the comments below, via email, or post a message to me on Facebook. I’ll help wherever I can.
Have you ever let your child fly as an unaccompanied minor? Do you have any words of advice to add? Comment below and I’ll update the post with your suggestions!