Should Parents Let Their Kids Fly Alone?

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It was one of the great scenes in the movie Sleepless in Seattle – eight year-old Jonah Baldwin (played by Ross Malinger) gets on a plane to fly from Seattle to New York so he can meet Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) on top of the Empire State Building.  Jonah’s friend Jessica (Gaby Hoffman) knows how to get Jonah on the plane, because her Mom is a travel agent, and she’s seen her do it all the time.

Sleepless in Seattle came out twenty years ago.  Now, kids flying solo on airplanes is even more common.  But things didn’t go very smoothly for a California family recently.  Here’s the story according to NBC’s Today Show:

We decided to do some asking around of our own.  Dadditudes contacted Amigo Travel in Toronto, where Community Manager Rossana Wyatt tells us one of the agents was actually in the middle of booking a flight for a ten year-old right when we contacted them.

“It is very common to have unaccompanied minors on flights,” Rossana says.  ”Generally, there is an extra fee paid – the fee will be dependent on the airline. The reservation system is notified when setting up the initial reservation, that the minor is unaccompanied.  Some airlines do not allow unaccompanied minors on connecting flights; the child is the responsibility of initial embarking airline until the child’s connecting flight has taken off.”

In the case of the story above, United Airlines was using a third-party service to act as caretaker for the child, and it’s that company that dropped the ball.  Rossana suggests that’s not how it normally goes.  ”If there is a connecting flight,” she says, “generally the child will disembark last  (they are usually sitting near the back) along with the crew. There is usually an airline employee (flight attendant) who will take the child over to the connecting flight gate and make sure the child is checked in and is handed over the to crew on the connecting flight and boards the plane.”

Beyond that, the process is pretty simple, she says.  ”The agent will advise you to be at the airport at least 2 hours prior for a domestic flight, and at least three hours prior for international flights.  Make sure you have all the documentation ready, along with details of who will be picking the child up at the destination. The guardian picking them up at the destination may have to show ID, and will be asked to sign once child is picked up.”

The reaction to this story has been interesting.  For our money, it’s largely being driven by the bubble-wrap-and-duct-tape crowd, the same people who are responsible for putting helmets on toddlers so they don’t bump their heads while learning to crawl, and finding myriad other ways to cash in on parental guilt.  The Today story even quotes a psychotherapist who says, “ten is too young.  It’s naive at best.  And it’s neglectful at worst.”

We respectfully disagree.

Instead we think it’s naive to suggest that there’s a “magical age” where kids suddenly develop certain abilities.  So an eleven-and-a-half year-old is too young, but six months later, the gift they’ll be given on their twelfth birthday is to be magically endowed with the innate ability to handle whatever situations might be thrown at them?  We know plenty of ten year-olds who make better travelers than some thirty year-olds.  Read any story about a plane that was turned around or forced to land somewhere because of an unruly passenger, and we’ll give you cash money for every one you can find where the person responsible was an unaccompanied minor child.

We’re big fans of the idea that situations like these depend largely on the maturity of the child, and the comfort level of the parents.  It’s also a completely different thing to fly from New York to Toronto than it is to fly from Tokyo to London.  There’s no simple, universal answer that should be forced upon everyone.

With all that said, our Amigo Travel friends say there are things you can do to make the process go more smoothly.  ”Try and make sure that the child is on a direct flight,” Rossana told us, “and always have the child carry a cell phone so that they can call home in case they need to. Go over everything with the child so that they understand the travel arrangements and will ask for help or ask questions if there is a change or something goes wrong. Make sure that the airlines have the numbers for everyone including the destination pickup.”  And while we can’t imagine a scenario where the parent wouldn’t be standing at the window waving frantically, Rossana also reminds us, “the parent dropping off should wait until the flight has actually departed before leaving the airport because many times planes have disembarked after being boarded and waiting on runway.”

Do you think there should be a date-certain age where kids suddenly develop the ability to travel alone, or do you believe that every kid is different?  Have your kids flown alone?  Tell us about it in the Comments below!

(Flickr image by lunchtimemama)

[Editor's Note:  Huge thanks to Rossana Wyatt and our friends at Amigo Travel in Toronto for their help with this article.  Find them online by clicking here.]

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