Video: Who’s to blame for kids flying alone?

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    >>> southwest airlines is defending its policy on unaccompanied minors after three jacksonville children bought plane tickets to nashville and flew there without their parents even knowing about it. the three are 15, 13 and 11. mark potter reports.

    >> reporter: on a summer day in jacksonville, florida, 13-year-old bobby was looking for something to do when 15-year-old bridget sent him a text message.

    >> i asked him today if he wanted to go to nashville , tennessee.

    >> reporter: they decided to visit the dollywood theme park using $700 bridget saved from baby-sitting. and without telling their parents, bridget, her 11-year-old brother, cody, and bobby then took a cab to the airport and bought tickets to nashville .

    >> they told us how much it would be and then we paid him and he put the flight things on our bags and he said you better run because you might miss your flight.

    >> reporter: the kids say no one at security asked them any questions.

    >> we just took our stuff out of our pocket, our shoes off and walked through and they didn't say nothing.

    >> did they ask for you i.d.s or anything?

    >> reporter: the kids discovered that dollywood was actually some 200 miles away and got scared and called hole.

    >> called and said we're in nashville , toward come home.

    >> reporter: the parents were shocked and angry the kids were allowed to fly without them. the tsa says children under the age of 18 are not required to show i.d. to fly. all they need is a valid boarding pass before entering security. and southwest airlines says under its policies, a 12-year-old can travel alone. as for 11-year-old cody, southwest says he, too, was okay to fly because he was accompanied by two older companions, meaning the 13 and 15-year-olds. now that the kids are back home, many are asking who is to blame. mark potter , nbc news, miami.

    >> well, the big question, were airline policies broken here. mark is the international editor for travel and leisure magazine . good morning. i think maybe some parents at home are thinking, wow that's scary, 15, 13, 11, just walk order a plane, paid cash for the tickets. but were any rules broken?

    >> southwest said it clearly. i talked to them the other day, they said, no, they did not violate any policy. if you're over 12, you can fly on your own. if you're under 12 but traveling with a 12-year-old or older, it's okay. that's their policy and they say people like it.

    >> right, because sometimes you want to send the kids to grandmas, you don't want to buy the adult ticket. so it's convenient and has been going on for some time. a lot of people are saying does the gate agent have any discretion when they're issuing these tickets, a child paying cash and could she have said where is your mom and dad , do they know you were flying.

    >> so many alarm bell with respect going off. they're buying tickets with cash, one way only tickets. no parents there, no i.d. any one of those things could have set these this thing in motion to ask for a supervise or who might come in and sary, hey, to do your folks know you're here.

    >> we actually have a specific statement we want to read out. they say the policy covers children from ages 5 through 11. in this case the 11-year-old customer was accompanied by between older companions. a 12-year-old can travel alone without a parent. many airlines have similar policies on minors traveling alone. so this wouldn't be something specific to southwest airlines . nearly every other airline has a similar --

    >> there's not a lot of consistency, but american airlines , it's not 12, it's 15. if you're older than 15, you can travel on your own. if you're under 15 but with a 15-year-old, you can travel together. other airlines like delta and continental, if you're a younger child, you can only travel with an 18-year-old or older person. so there's not a lot of consistency this.

    >> that's an interesting point. the tsa made a statement, as well, because people question why they were able to make it throughout check point without i.d. they say passengers under the age of 18 are not required to present identification but are required to have a valid boarding pass .

    >> nobody in this country illegally who doesn't have i.d. your birth certificate if nothing else. if you came into this country legally, you have some sort of i.d. showing that. everybody, everyone a child, has some form of i.t. and i hope that the tsa will take this as a teachable moment and maybe review their own practice.

    >> are there security measures in place at most major airports and within this special airline if you have a child traveling under the age of 18 to make sure he or she gets to point b safely?

    >> absolutely. everybody has an unaccompanied minor program where they will have a chaperone from the airline meet the parents and child at the ticket counter, walk them through security up to the plane, introduce it them to the flight attendant and it at the other end have a chaperone bring them back and hand them off to a designated adult.

    >> all right, mark, thanks so much.

Joe Myxter, msnbc.com
By Travel editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/14/2010 1:51:09 PM ET 2010-08-14T17:51:09

"I just wanted to fly and I had the money," said 15-year-old Bridget Brown, who purchased three airline tickets for herself, a 13-year-old friend and her 11-year-old brother, and hopped a Southwest flight from Jacksonville, Fla., to Nashville, Tenn. — all unbeknownst to their parents.

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Brown had $700 in baby-sitting money saved up, and bought the tickets at Southwest’s counter at Jacksonville International Airport.

"He said OK and told us how much it would be and then we paid him," she said in an interview aired on NBC's "TODAY Show" on Friday. "Then he put the flight things on our bags and then he said 'you better run because you might miss your flight.' "

Nobody asked questions or asked for identification. Not the taxi driver. Not the ticket counter. Not security officials or flight attendants or other passengers. So when they landed in Nashville with $40 left and their destination, Dollywood, still hundreds of miles away, they finally called home.

Now their parents are wondering how the trip was possible.

The Transportation Security Administration told NBC News that kids under the age of 18 aren’t required to show ID, just a valid boarding pass.

Southwest said it followed protocol. The incident in Jacksonville "didn’t raise a red flag," spokesperson Ashley Dillon told msnbc.com.

"This has been our policy for awhile now, and most other airlines have the same policy about minors, so we don’t plan to change it," Dillon said.

"Although passengers ages 12-17 are not considered 'legal' adults in the U.S., they may book a ticket and travel unaccompanied — without adult supervision — at any time of day," states the young traveler policy on Southwest’s website. Passengers 12 and older are not considered unaccompanied minors.

Kids between the ages of 5 and 11 are considered unaccompanied minors when "traveling without an accompanying passenger age 12 or over," the policy states.

The children called their parents from Nashville and immediately flew home. Southwest refunded the costs of the tickets.

Minors have the ability to purchase airline, bus or train tickets and leave town without the knowledge of their parents or guardians.

A 15-year-old child, for example, can purchase a Greyhound bus ticket and travel without parental consent (except in Illinois, which has stricter rules for minors).

"We have a number of conditions for minors [under 15] riding alone," said Bonnie Bastian, a media relations manager for Greyhound.

Passengers under 8 years old must be accompanied by a traveling partner who is at least 15, she said.

Furthermore, children between the ages of 8 and 14 years old can travel as unaccompanied minors, but they must be on trips without transfers, the journeys can’t be longer than five hours, the trips must take place during daylight hours and the origin and destination must be full-service stops or company-operated facilities, Bastian said.

Greyhound insists the parent, guardian or legal custodian of the minor complete an unaccompanied minor form. "This form specifically names the person authorizing the trip and the person meeting the child at the destination station and the telephone number(s) at which this person may be contacted," the company’s policy states.

The same basic rules apply to the rails.

Children "15 and older, if they have valid ID, can purchase a ticket and travel," said Amtrak spokesperson Vernae Graham. "That’s our policy."

Perhaps, but it’s not common. "Adults typically buy a ticket," she said.

Richard Bloom, an aviation security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said while this incident amounted to a childhood jaunt, it highlights legitimate safety implications.

"The moral of the story is, at least in other parts of the world, young people are engaged in weapons, planting bombs, testing security," he said. "The point is terrorist groups, insurgent groups, other kinds of transnational groups, what have you, they read the papers, they watch TV, they look at security lapses. And they take that information as they develop their own terrorist operations and anti-government operations."

Msnbc.com staff, NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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