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Q&A: When your child flies alone

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Flying solo can be daunting for a kid. Make sure you help your child understand what to expect.

Each month, thousands of children travel alone on airplanes. The airlines call them unaccompanied minors, or UMs, and their numbers spike during school holidays and in the summer when kids go to camp, visit relatives or see a divorced parent in another city.  

For kids, a solo plane trip might be thrilling, humdrum or frightening. For parents, it can be nerve-wracking and expensive.

Here’s a brief overview of what you need to know about sending your child in the skies alone.

The cost
Most airlines charge an extra handling fee for boarding an unaccompanied minor.

This fee is charged each way (sometimes each flight segment) and ranges from $50 to more than $200 per trip for domestic flights. The fee can be much higher on international flights.

Paying the fee does not mean your child will have constant supervision during the flight.

Delta Air Lines provides staffed, secure areas at airports in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, New York (JFK), Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City where unaccompanied children wait for a connecting flight. But at the beginning of a trip, the airline requires an adult to escort his or her child to the gate and wait there until the plane takes off.  

Once on the plane, supervision for an unaccompanied minor may be limited. On its website Southwest Airlines says: “A flight attendant will check on the UM periodically, as duties allow, but will not continuously monitor the child throughout the flight.”

The bottom line: It’s up to parents to make sure a child is prepared to fly solo.

Do your homework
Fees and policies can vary widely. In addition to studying available flights and applicable UM charges, it’s important to check rules and alternate routing from nearby airports. Most airlines do not allow unaccompanied children to fly on the last flight of the day, during bad weather or during conditions that may cause a delay. Some airlines charge UM fees only for children aged 5-11; others collect the fee for teens up to age 15. 

Attention to detail
You can’t just pay the fee online and drop your kid off at the airport. Airlines will ask for identification, multiple contact numbers and additional information that may require tracking down. Airlines that require or allow adults or guardians to accompany children to the gate can issue an escort pass at check-in to be used at the security checkpoint. Leave time to fill out this and other paperwork at the airport and inform the person picking up the child at the other end about ID requirements and rules. 

Make sure your child is ready
If possible, a child’s first flight shouldn’t be his or her first solo flight. Either way, pack your child snacks, cash, a charged cell phone with pre-programmed contact and emergency phone numbers and entertaining activities for the plane. Be sure to talk with your child about what to expect and what to do if something goes wrong.

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on Stuck at The Airport.com and follow her on Twitter.