Wednesday, December 20, 2000

More kids flying solo on airlines

Divorce a factor in growing trend

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — Alicia Sehlhorst can recite in her sleep the safety drill flight attendants give before a plane departs. After all, Alicia has logged 20,000 miles in her frequent flyer account over the past four years. At age 9, she's just getting started.

        Alicia represents a growing number of minors — some as young as 5 — who fly the friendly skies unescorted by parents or guardians. The trend is fueled in part by divorces that force families to live in separate cities, lower air fares and a strong economy.

[photo] Veteran flier Alicia Sehlhorst, 9, rides the tram at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport after she flew on her own from Orlando, Fla.
(Mike Simons photo)
| ZOOM |
        “We really don't have hard numbers, but we have definitely seen an increase in unescorted minors over the last couple of years,” says Meghan Glynn, spokeswoman for Comair, a popular airline for Tristate parents because of the airline's inexpensive weekend passes.

        “It's really noticeable in early summer and before the holidays.”

        Delta Air Lines and Comair officials say they don't track the number of unescorted minors traveling each year. But officials from Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines say the number of children flying alone has increased from 110,000 in 1995 to 140,000 this year.

        From all accounts, airlines are handling the increase in children flying alone well, with Delta and Comair officials stressing that unaccompanied minors are a priority.
   • Fly nonstop and direct, if possible, to limit the chances a child could be stranded.
   • Make sure the child has a book, favorite toy or other distraction.
   • Don't overload the child with carry-on luggage.
   • Review what to expect with the child, and make emergency plans in case of delays or cancellations.
   • Provide the child and airline with all possible phone numbers, and give the child a cell phone if practical.
   • If picking up a child, arrive at the airport an hour ahead of time in case the flight arrives early.
   • Once at the airport, stay in constant touch with gate agents to check on the progress of departing/arriving flights.
   Delta/Comair policies for unaccompanied minors
   • Children 5-11 may travel alone for an additional $30 for a direct flight, $60 for a connecting flight. The same charges are added on the return trip. Parents also may purchase the service for children ages 12-17. Children under 5 are not allowed to fly alone.
   • Service agents will aid the child in making connections, including to other airlines.
   • A parent or guardian must stay with the child by the gate upon departure until the child boards the plane.
   • The name, address and telephone number of the person who will meet the child at the final destination must be provided ahead of time.
   • Whoever meets the child on arrival must provide identification and sign an acceptance of responsibility for the child.
   • A flight attendant will hold the child's ticket and other travel documents throughout the flight. On international trips, the airline will verify that the child has proof of citizenship.
   • Unaccompanied minors are required to wear a red and white I.D. button when not with their parents.
   • Airlines will not book a child on the last connecting flight of the night to reduce chances of being stranded.
   • If it appears bad weather may divert the flight from the child's final destination, the child may be rebooked on an alternate flight.
    • Airline personnel are not permitted to administer medicine. If the child cannot self-medicate, then other travel arrangements must be made.
   Note: Policies differ between airlines, especially when it comes to age requirements. TWA and Northwest, for example, charge mandatory unescorted fees for children ages 5-15. Call the airline for specifics.


Children never left alone
        All major airlines allow children to start traveling alone at age 5, but require a surcharge — generally $30-$60 one-way — for the extra attention such passengers require.

        Airlines differ on when the fee is waived. Delta and Comair, for example, require the fee through age 11, while TWA and Northwest charge through age 15.

        The biggest complaint of parents interviewed is the occasional delay, although other glitches do occur.

        In September, Connie Miller of Evendale put her 8-year-old grandson on a Comair flight back to his mother in Washington, D.C., but says she wasn't told that his flight had been returned to another gate.

        “Our boy was in another area, thinking we had abandoned him,” says Mrs. Miller, who reunited with her grandson about an hour after the plane was supposed to take off. “They can fall through the cracks.”

        Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski says such occurrences are rare, saying that the surcharge ensures a child is never left alone, even during layovers.

        Delta and Comair policy calls for a company employee to meet an unescorted minor at the plane. They are then escorted either to a secure, supervised area, or to an adult previously designated if the trip is over.

        “You have to be the one previously agreed to and show I.D. and sign for the child,” Ms. Kurczewski says. “We've had instances of people saying they were the sister or the cousin or whatever, and we just have to say no.”

        In addition, Comair and Delta prohibit an unaccompanied minor from being scheduled on the last connecting flight out of another airport, minimizing the chances a child would be stranded overnight.

Routine for kids

        That level of security eases the mind of Jim Kellner of Madeira, a salesman who has been sending his 13-year-old daughter to California alone on Delta for about six years.

        Even though his daughter is old enough to fly without the surcharge, Mr. Kellner still pays for the extra supervision.

        “It only makes sense to pay the little bit extra for the peace of mind,” Mr. Kellner says.

        Alicia also says she feels safe and has no complaints when she flies from her Orlando, Fla., home with her 14-year-old brother to visit her father, David Sehlhorst, of West Harrison.

        “It's fun, but it's just sort of routine now,” says Alicia, who flies about five times a year, mostly on Comair. “I really like the free food and sodas, though.”

        Comair has responded to the increase in unescorted minors by beefing up the children's section of its in-flight magazine, Navigator. The Air Transport Association, the airline industry's main trade association, says it is developing guidelines for young travelers in response to the trend. Other parents have noticed an increase as well.

        “Last summer when we went to pick them up, about half the people on that flight were kids by themselves,” Mr. Sehlhorst says.

        For those considering sending their children off alone, airline officials and parents stress to make sure children have something to occupy themselves on the plane and during potential layovers.

        “It helps them from being totally bored and helps the flight crew in that the child doesn't need constant attention,” Ms. Kurczewski says.

        Some parents who share Mr. Sehlhorst's situation still refuse to send their children alone on a plane.

        Rob Large of West Chester, for example, flies to Kansas City five times a year to pick up his kids for visitations, before flying back with them.

        “Even though it costs me $500-$600 extra, I refuse to put them on a plane alone,” Mr. Large says. “The divorce has been bad enough on them, and I'm not going to shortchange my kids because I feel a little lighter in the wallet.”

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