Thursday, August 09, 2001

Risky business


Why do so many kids fly solo?

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        When America West Airlines delivered two little girls to the wrong airport, one of them did what any reasonable child would do.

        She started to cry.

        The sisters, 8 and 11, were traveling from their dad in Houston to their mom in San Diego. By themselves.

        Their mother was outraged.

        “I'm angry,” Michelle Spears said, “because you pay to have these kids watched.” And, by gosh, somebody has got to take responsibility.

        Ms. Spears has tough words for the airline: “The whole thing should never have happened. I told them I expect plane tickets forever.”

Stricter rules?

        The incident with the Spears children was the third kiddie snafu in three weeks for America West. Starting next month, the airline will allow children under 12 to travel alone only on non-stop flights.

        Maybe parents should change their own rules. Maybe they should even accompany their own children.

        This probably would be inconvenient and expensive. Just like children themselves. That's part of the parenthood deal, which also used to involve traveling together. Sometimes it was no fun being trapped together for several hours.

        Modern parents surely don't love their children any less, but everybody has more travel options. We don't have to try to break up the automobile trip with a visit to the largest ball of twine in the Midwest or by counting license plates.

        These days, we can rent video games or play movies in the car. We can fly.

        Or we can send the kids off by themselves.

Priority baggage

        Delta charges an extra $40 each way for children aged 5-11 who are traveling alone on direct flights. A $75 fee applies on connecting flights. Most airlines allow children ages 5 and over to fly alone for a modest fee. An estimated 7 million kids flew solo last year.

        Savvy travelers haul their own baggage for fear the airline will send it to the wrong city. But of course you can't be too careful with cameras and shoes and cosmetics.

        Anyway, let's suppose a child manages to make it alone from point A to Airport B. What if he gets sick during the flight? What if she has to go to the bathroom? Or is just scared?

        “It's not unusual,” said one airline official, “for airlines to get inquiries about infants.”

        Parents who won't let their kids cross the street by themselves will put them in the care of a flight attendant they've never met who has to feed and water a couple hundred other passengers.

        Parents who won't let their kids go into a public restroom by themselves deliver them to public transportation with their names and destinations written in big red letters on tickets around their necks.

        Most airlines stipulate that they will not medicate children in-flight and that parents have to remain in the gate area until takeoff. For Pete's sake.

        Delta Air Lines' Cindi Kurczewski says, “We try to accommodate families' needs, but we're not a babysitting service. Lots of children are very adept at traveling by themselves.”

        So are lots of adults, but sometimes we still wind up in the wrong place. Usually we are accompanied by our Visa card and some previous experience.

        “The moment we landed,” 11-year-old Krista Spears told NBC's Katie Couric, “I'm just like, "What am I doing here?'”

        Good question.

       E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

       



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