MARGUERITE KELLY

When children travel alone

Posted March 12, 2012, at 5:13 p.m.

Q. My youngest daughter flew home for a visit last summer and I want to make sure that no one else has such a bad experience.

It all began when an airline staffer was told to care for a small, timid child — maybe 3½ or 4 years old — on a four-hour flight to see her father. Apparently, the staffer didn’t like this assignment, so she gave the little girl’s hand to my daughter and told her to take care of the child.

The plane, however, was delayed and the little girl had no ID; no note on her clothing; no small suitcase; no favorite toys; no snacks. The child was so scared she could hardly talk.

My daughter shared the few snacks that she had packed for herself and her own 5-year-old son and tried to keep the children occupied, but they were still cranky, tired and hungry when they arrived and my daughter was exhausted and worried about the child.

Since then, she has heard that airlines frequently “bump” the kids who travel alone and put them on later flights, which must upset both the children and the families who are waiting for them to arrive.

What can parents do to make a trip more fun for the child who travels alone? And how can they make flight attendants realize that a small child is a great responsibility?

A. There are no government regulations for unaccompanied minors but surely the extra $100-200 that is added to their roundtrip tickets should have helped that child get better care on the plane.

Airlines don’t bump children who travel alone, say their spokesmen — which may or may not be true — but they definitely have strong rules to protect them , as well as themselves. Although these rules vary from one airline to the next, none of them lets children fly alone until they’re 5.

Once cleared, the clerk would have given the mother a pass so she could walk the child to her gate, watch her board the plane and wait until it took off and also given the child a tag with her name, her itinerary and the names and phone numbers of the drop-off person and the pick-up person.

The child also needed to travel with a small carry-on, containing her name, her contact information and her itinerary, in case her tag got lost. In addition, she needed some paper and crayons, so she could entertain herself; a small stuffed toy so she wouldn’t feel lonely; some snacks so she wouldn’t go hungry; some money so she could buy a treat from the cart; a sweater so she didn’t get cold and a pair of underpants, too, in case she had an accident.

The airlines also suggests that a child visit the airport before making a trip alone, but there are a few other tips that might help ‘unaccompanied minors’ in the future.

For more hints, download When Kids Fly Alone from airconsumer.ost.dot.gov and read the rules that each airline posts before booking a ticket. You’ll learn a lot.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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