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If children are prepared, flying alone is no big deal

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

If your children are flying alone this summer, you're probably in for two surprises. One, they probably will do much better than you would have believed possible. Two, most airlines charge $40 extra each way for children to fly alone on a direct flight, $75 extra each way when the trip includes a connecting flight.

Southwest is the only major airline that doesn't charge an extra fee to make sure a flight attendant keeps an eye on your child. But Southwest also is the only major airline that doesn't allow children under 12 on connecting flights without an adult.

Most airlines let children start flying alone at age 5; some require that children be a few years older for connecting flights. I haven't sent my kids solo-flying yet, but I recently sat with children flying alone on separate flights to and from North Carolina. They were happy -- no tears, no sweaty palms, not even any lost or lonely looks. In fact, these kids -- ages 5 and 7 -- had a good time.

Their parents, on the other hand, were a little nervous.

"My mama told me everything is going to be okay, and nothing is going to happen," said Alissa Gordon, 7, a rising second-grader at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "'She said for me to just pray if I get scared and nervous, and she was really going to cry when I left. My daddy is going to miss me, too."

Alissa was on her way to Fayetteville, N.C., to visit her grandfather, aunts and cousins. I sat on her right. On her left was Thomas Gobble, 5, who was flying home to Durham after visiting his grandmother in Bradenton.

Other than reminding Alissa that she couldn't lower her tray table and helping her sound out the word "minnow" when she was reading to Thomas, I could see she needed no help. Thomas was fine, too. I opened his granola bar and picked up his model airplanes when they dropped. His only complaint was about the time it took to get his apple juice.

"Does anybody know I wanted a drink?" he asked me about 15 minutes after we had placed our orders. I was wondering the same thing.

Both kids came prepared with toys, books and snacks. Alissa delved into worksheets from school and even had extra batteries for her CD player.

"My mama said they might check in my bag, but they didn't," she told me. "With the big people, they look for knives and stuff, but little people don't have any of that."

"I tried not to tell her anything about 9-11," said Rebecca Gordon, Alissa's mother. "I didn't want to put any of that in her mind about what could happen. I said for kids, they were just checking to make sure you have cool snacks."

Gordon packed two of everything and instructed her daughter to share and make friends with any children she sat near.

Gordon booked her daughter on Southwest because the airline doesn't charge an extra fee for an unaccompanied child on a nonstop flight.

"We don't want to charge a fee just for a few extra services and keeping an eye on them," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, Southwest spokeswoman.

American Airlines spokesman Todd Burke said his company charges the fee because it ensures that a flight attendant is focused on the child the entire time.

"You know how to ask for things as an adult," he said, adding that children often don't. "A flight attendant is going to already anticipate their needs. They'll bring pillows and a blanket and give them extra attention."

I think the airlines could share the fee with the adult passengers sitting near the kids because they help with any minor needs long before a flight attendant arrives.

Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's Today Show, thinks the fees are a rip-off and don't ensure much extra supervision.

"There is no FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rule or mandate providing for additional flight attendants based on the number of unaccompanied minors on any flight," he said. "So it is not unusual, especially on Saturdays, to see flights with 20 to 30 unaccompanied minors and the same complement of flight attendants."

On most airlines, if you have several children traveling together, you pay one unaccompanied-child fee. On some airlines, if you have a child under 12 traveling with a sibling over 12, there is no extra charge. Delta requires that the older child be 14. American requires age 16, and Continental, age 18.

A friend of mine, Patti Cook, flew her 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to Michigan to visit grandparents this summer. They were on Delta, so there was no additional fee. Turns out a Delta agent still walked them to their connecting gate.

The only bad part of the trip occurred when Cook was hugging her kids goodbye for the 10th time at Tampa International Airport. A stranger chastised her in front of her kids for letting them fly alone.

More than 200,000 children will fly without their parents this summer. Parents should remind their children of the things they can ask for if they need help from either a flight attendant or a nearby passenger. If they get too cold or hot, the air over their head can be adjusted. Kids seem to get as many drinks and snacks as they want, if they ask. Cook instructed her children to use the restroom on the plane but not in the airport.

And although only ticketed passengers are allowed past security since Sept. 11, parents of children flying alone can get a special pass at the airline check-in desks to go all the way to the gate to drop off or pick up their children.

-- Parenthood is a series of decisions about letting go. Tell me of times you struggled to let your children do something on their own, whether it was dropping them at the movies, letting them ride a bike home from school or sleeping over at a friend's house. Contact me at (727) 822-7225 or oliviachar@aol.com.

-- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by writing to Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Kids in the air

Here are some tips from Today Show travel editor Peter Greenberg about children flying alone:

Give your kids a phone card and teach them how to use it.

Teach them how to use an ATM card in case they need extra cash or lose the money you send with them.

After your kids board the plane, stay at the gate until the plane has taken off.

Never put your kids on the last flight of the day, especially if it has a connection.

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