Millions of unaccompanied children between the ages of five and 12 (called "unaccompanied minors," or "UA," by the airlines) travel on the major airlines every year. Most airlines accept these children as passengers but impose restrictions and sometimes extra fees. Before you put your child on an airplane unaccompanied by an adult, learn what the airlines require, what your obligations are as a parent or legal guardian, and what you can do to minimize problems during your child's trip.
Airline Requirements and Obligations
Most airlines impose restrictions on unaccompanied minor travel. Here are some of the common restrictions you may come across:
- Some airlines allow younger children to travel only on nonstop or direct flights.
- Many will charge a fee of $30-60 if an airline employee must assist a minor in order to change planes.
- Most require the parent or guardian to fill out a form detailing the child's name, age, medical considerations, and other relevant information.
- Most require the parent or legal guardian to agree that the airline will not take any special responsibility of guardianship during the flight.
Airlines are careful to make clear that they have no obligations to the child before or after the flight. If no parent or guardian is available to pick up the minor at the end of the flight -- or even in the middle of a trip if a connecting flight is canceled or delayed -- some airlines will turn the child over to the local child welfare authorities or the police.
Also, airline personnel cannot turn over an unaccompanied minor to a waiting parent or guardian without seeing the adult's identification and matching it with the information on the form filled out before departure.
Parent and Legal Guardian Requirements
Parents and legal guardians are responsible for bringing the child to the departure gate and having an authorized parent or guardian pick up the child on arrival. (In this situation, a "legal guardian" is simply the adult designated by the child's parent -- not someone appointed by a judge.)
In order to minimize problems and ease your child's travel experience, follow the tips below.
Tips for Parents of Unaccompanied Minors
To minimize difficulties for unaccompanied minors, airlines recommend the following for parents or guardians:
- Have the child fly only nonstop or direct so that the child does not need to change airplanes. If a change of planes is necessary, use a smaller, less intimidating airport for the transfer, if possible.
- Completely and clearly fill out all of the paperwork required for unaccompanied minors, especially the paperwork that must travel with the child.
- Provide information about how flight delays or cancellations should be handled, including emergency contacts and a means to pay for necessities, such as overnight accommodation.
- Explain to your child what is going to happen so he or she is prepared to be taken care of by airline employees. Some airlines have a special quiet room for minors to wait for a connecting flight.
For more information on air travel -- including tips on passengers' rights, ticket restrictions, and overbooked flights -- check out Nolo's Air Travel and Airline Passenger Rights FAQ.