Airlines relax rules on kids flying alone
By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
During each of the past two summers, Thomas Bennett has climbed aboard an airplane to fly alone from Tampa to New York to visit his grandparents. He will make his third trip this year, at the ripe old age of 7.
But he won't be alone this time. His 5-year-old sister, Jenny, will be flying with him.
"I had a few reservations right after Sept. 11 about letting them go, but I feel better about it now," says Susan Bennett, a paralegal at a St. Petersburg law firm and the children's mother. "Our experience has always been good."
The number of people flying has declined by 19 percent nationwide since the terrorist attacks. Airlines say they don't know how many unaccompanied minors have stayed at home, but they say the drop in "UMs" easily exceeds the falloff of passengers in general.
One reason is parental nerves; another is heightened airline restrictions on children flying solo.
But as time distances the nation from Sept. 11, and as airline personnel become used to their new routines, those restrictions are easing. Almost all airlines are now offering full services to minors again, although heightened security has caused some changes, and not all airlines operate with the same restrictions.
There were several incidents last year in which minors flying alone were put on the wrong connecting flights by airline personnel and became lost for several hours. In response, some carriers began refusing to fly children younger than 12 on itineraries that included connections.
That policy became universal after Sept. 11.
US Airways, for example, limited unaccompanied minors between the ages of 8 and 11 to nonstop flights. The airline wouldn't allow anyone younger than 8 to fly alone under any circumstances. Now the airline has reverted to its old policy of letting children as young as 5 fly alone on nonstop and connecting flights.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration requires photo IDs only for passengers 18 and older, US Airways also asks for IDs from passengers who are 16 and 17.
"Essentially, we want a photo ID from everyone," says airline spokesman David Castelveter. "But if it's an 8-year-old, for example, and he doesn't have one, and the gate agent is comfortable, we don't insist on it. It's discretionary."
American Trans Air, or ATA, the Indianapolis-based carrier that provides about 50 percent of the scheduled service at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, also allows children as young as 5 to fly alone and to make connecting flights. But ATA has raised the fees it charges for escorting them.
The fee for nonstop and direct flights went from $35 to $40 each way. It went from $70 to $80 for international or connecting flights.
"Children under 12 must have photo IDs or an acceptable ID from the parent or guardian dropping them off," says Peter Wilander, vice president for customers at ATA. "Children 12 and older must have a photo ID or a Social Security card with a corroborating ID, such as a library card or a credit card."
For parents such as Bennett, being able to walk their children to the gate and having a grandparent meet them at the other end is crucial. Yet for nearly four months, the FAA has refused to allow anyone but ticketed passengers through security to gate areas.
"I'm not going to leave them with a stranger," Bennett said. "If I can't walk them to the gate, they don't go."
Most airlines now permit that much. But a parent or guardian must stop at the ticket counter and fill out forms that include phone numbers for the adult dropping off a child and for the person who will meet the child at the final destination.
Airlines will not relinquish custody to anyone but the designated adult. To accompany a child to the gate, an adult must get a pass through security.
"Even if a parent gets a gate pass and chooses to accompany a child to the plane, they must be escorted by an authorized individual," said Emilio Howell, a spokesman for American Airlines. "And then the parent must be escorted out again. It's the same for the parent or guardian picking up the child."
Children from 5 to 11 must use American Airlines escorts, whether with an adult or not. The cost is $30 for a nonstop or direct flight and $60 for a connection. For a round-trip flight, the charges double.
Southwest Airlines has never flown any unaccompanied minor younger than 12 on an itinerary that includes a connecting flight.
"Some people worry even about a 12-year-old, but everything depends on the maturity of the child," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokeswoman for Southwest. "Nobody can make that decision better than the parents."
Southwest does not offer escorts, which is one reason it doesn't fly unaccompanied children younger than 12 on connecting flights.
"We essentially don't have the staff to babysit a parent and child," Turneabe-Connelly said.
On Jan. 15, Delta Air Lines lifted a restriction that limited unaccompanied minors to ages 12 and older. Now children as young as 5 may fly on all of Delta's flights. Domestic fees for escorts are $40 each way for nonstop or direct flights and $75 for one or more connections. International fees are $60 for direct or nonstop and $90 for itineraries that include connections.
Continental Airlines' escort fees range from $30 to $90, and children flying alone must pay the full adult fare. United Airlines charges a flat $60.
JetBlue, the low-fare carrier based at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, will fly unaccompanied minors as young as 4.
"But that's only point-to-point service," said spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones. "No connections."
Like most airlines, JetBlue insists that the parent or guardian remain in the gate area until their child's flight has taken off.
"That way, if a problem develops, and passengers have to get off the plane, or the flight is canceled, there's someone there responsible for the child," Edmondson-Jones said.
Most airlines have their policies concerning accompanied and unaccompanied minors posted on their Web sites. But because these policies have been moving targets in recent months, parents are advised to check with the airline before leaving for the airport and to leave plenty of time for the special handling unaccompanied children need.
-- Times Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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