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Parents reconsider sending kids flying solo

/ Source: contributor

Tension has now faded to laughter, but recently the Drake family “went to war.” Their two-week standoff fueled a covert plot on one side, and a power play on the other — all over plans to jet a little girl alone across the country for vacation.

Battle lines were drawn between KeJuana Drake and her mother, Burnice. Too swamped with work and school to travel, KeJuana wanted to fly her 9-year-old daughter solo from Washington, D.C., direct to the West Coast to visit a favorite aunt. The kid was on cloud nine. But grandma Burnice balked, arguing it’s harmful to send children unescorted on airliners.

Schemes were hatched. KeJuana decided to secretly buy the ticket anyway — “ask for forgiveness later rather than permission up front,” she figured. Burnice countered, purchasing a round-trip ticket for KeJuana to coax her to accompany her granddaughter.

“Mom,” KeJuana later admitted, “trumps all.” KeJuana will sit next to her daughter on June 27 as a Northwest Airlines flight carries both to Los Angeles. The next day, KeJuana will return to Washington. And after hearing how Continental Airlines mistakenly placed two different unaccompanied girls (aged 8 and 10) on the wrong Continental Express flights to the wrong cities last weekend, Burnice is truly savoring her victory.

“Yes, I am!” she said. “I don’t like for children to be put into adult situations and, in my opinion, flying alone puts a 9-year-old in an adult situation. It can be stressful and traumatic for a child to be alone on a plane. Stuff can happen.”

Parents, grandparents reconsider
In the wake of the Continental errors — and on the cusp of summer, when thousands of unattended kids zoom across time zones en route to camps or to see divorced moms and dads — many parents and grandparents are re-thinking how and when children should go it alone.

Every major carrier accepts and offers special attention to unescorted flyers starting at age 5. On United Airlines, solo-flying kids must wear red-and-white buttons so flight crews can identify them. On Southwest Airlines, unattended children are introduced to the flight attendants. Still, parental nerves seem more frayed over the issue, experts say.

At the Family Travel Network, an online magazine and trip-planning hub, many parental e-mails are this week tinged with vapor-trail jitters.

“This is peak season for unaccompanied minors and what happened with Continental is every parent’s nightmare,” said Nancy Schretter, the site’s managing editor. “You know, some parents won’t even let their 5-year-olds play outside alone. And with those two Continental flights, the parents looked like they did all the right things, had everything set up.

“Now a lot of parents are asking: is my child old enough to do this? A lot of parents are re-evaluating that. It’s a critical question,” Schretter said. “Are they mature enough? Can the child ask the right questions (while onboard)? There’s no excuse for these (Continental) situations, no way. But parents should be asking themselves: am I really comfortable with my kids flying alone?”

For New York City-area mom Molly Gordy, Continental would have been “the more convenient choice” on which to transport her 11-year-old daughter, Sophie, alone to Milwaukee to visit her grandparents.

“Instead and fortunately, according to the latest news, we went (with) Midwest Airlines” for her daughter’s June 26 solo flight, Gordy said. And she paid more to do it. She felt a smaller airline and more intimate service would be a better fit for Sophie. “What I care about is a human being who cares about my child.”

Policies differ by airline
At what age do unattended minors still require gate-to-gate handholding? That debate extends well beyond family dinner tables. Even the carriers don’t have a consensus. On Southwest, unaccompanied-child service is available only for passengers between ages 5 and 11.

Asked why the airline deemed age 12 as being old enough to fly alone as an adult, Southwest spokesman Paul Flannigan couldn’t initially provide an answer. He asked around at company headquarters in Dallas and later still couldn’t explain the policy, responding by e-mail: “No one I talked to could tell me why our UM (unaccompanied minor) policy addresses the ages that we currently have. Basically, we follow standards and guidelines that are dictated by the industry.”

Delta Airlines, in contrast, will provide extra attention to riders who are 17 — if parents request it and pay a $100 fee. (All the major airlines charge for the service). However, Delta also leads the U.S airline industry in complaints when it comes to their handling of unaccompanied minors. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, customers have lodged 23 complaints against Delta since 2007 about its treatment of solo-flying kids. (Delta did not respond to an interview request for this story).

US Airways received 19 complaints in that category. Continental has been tagged with seven complaints over that same span regarding its care of unaccompanied minors.

At Continental, spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said Wednesday the carrier’s unaccompanied-minor policies are solid and work well if the employees adhere to them. In a statement earlier this week, Cripe blamed the two weekend mistakes on “miscommunication” among gate staff.

“We are working with employees to reinforce the procedures that we have in place,” Cripe said in an interview. “The established procedures are effective when followed.”

Complaints down this year
So far in 2009, complaints are down against the airlines over their safekeeping of unattended kids — on pace for 22 this year, according to DOT. Last year, there were 53 such complaints, and in 2007 there were 41. But summer has not officially begun. And the airlines are not required to report such incidents to the government.

At the Family Travel Network in McLean, Va., questions are surging and the advice is flowing, Schretter said. Parents are being reminded to have their unescorted kids memorize flight numbers and destination cities, and to have children practice reciting the vital question they should always ask flight attendants upon boarding: “Am I on the right plane?”

Equipping kids with cell phones is another useful tool. And, Schretter suggested, parents might consider sticking to larger carriers when flying children unattended — particularly when a connecting flight is involved. Bigger airlines typically park one plane at each gate vs. smaller airlines which sometimes funnel passengers down a jetway and outside where several planes are waiting.

“With the small, regional jets, they have these cattle chutes where the kids go out,” Schretter said. “There is one door and all these little planes, and it’s sort of like an accident waiting to happen.”