By: Sheila Gaudet
When people hear that my husband is an airline pilot, their first reaction is usually, “ooh, free flights!” That can be a benefit of being part of an airline. Unfortunately, between my husband’s work schedule (including the commute to his “base” airport) and the kids’ school, extracurricular, and visitation schedules, we never seem to have time to travel anywhere as a family! There is also the issue that we fly standby as a benefit and getting four of us on a standby flight during a school vacation is almost impossible. That said, my kids both use their benefit quite often to visit far-away family members. They do it alone!
My younger son was actually the first to fly as an unaccompanied minor when he was just entering first grade. I cannot tell you what a mess I was about it. It is the reality of divorced parenting though that he flies several times a year across the country by himself. He is now a pro and we have worked out what works for him.
Here are some tips that work for him:
- Allow plenty of time at the airport for check-in. My son does not get anxious about flying, but he does get anxious about missing the flight and crowds. Getting there extra early allows plenty of time to go through the process.
- Pack a lightweight carry on bag with some books, a notebook and pen (he loves to draw), headphones, an extra shirt/sweatshirt and an electronic game if your child is old enough to understand the rules about when they can play them. Check the rest of the luggage, even if it is just a small suitcase. It will be one less thing to worry about in security and loading.
- Make sure your child is fed, watered, and uses the bathroom before boarding. The crews do a great job at making sure they get what they need, but we find that the more self-sufficient he is, the happier he is. Having to ask a stranger to move so he can get out of the seat or operate the bathroom door is anxiety producing. He pretty much settles in his seat and is good for the flight this way.
- Fill out an index card with some contact information on it and put it in the carry on, in case it gets misplaced. I also send a small amount of cash (about $10) in case there is a delay when there’s a connecting flight and he gets hungry or thirsty. Even if he doesn’t use it, knowing he has it is reassuring.
- After you have gone through security, buy a bottle of water and a snack and put it in the carry on, even if they say they don’t need it. Better safe than sorry.
- Most airlines have information about meals/snacks/beverages offered on flights available online. One thing that is helpful to us is that we review what is offered on that flight and have him decide what he’s going to ask for beforehand. He’s a cookie kid, so that usually wins out, but since he knows what the options are he’s comfortable asking.
- If possible, fly the first time with your child and show them how to use the call button, plug the headphones in, etc. My son prefers to fly JetBlue because they have the TV screens (and no, my husband doesn’t work for them!)
- When a child is flying as an unaccompanied minor, make sure that you have the driver’s license information of the person who will be picking them up at the other end. The airline will require it and does check ID before turning the child over. You are allowed to accompany your child to the gate (but most airlines only allow one adult through, so don’t think the whole family is going to do a big send off). You must remain at the gate after boarding, until the plane pushes back. The person picking up the child at the other end should get a “gate pass” from the check-in area and will meet your child at the gate at the other end.
- If possible, book a direct flight. Each airline has it’s own rules about unaccompanied minors and the ages at which they can make connecting flights. Also, you usually cannot book on the last flight of the day because they do not want a child stranded overnight. I really recommend trying to fly on less busy days when possible to reduce the chances of delays.
- For kids who have special needs, many airports provide special tours to familiarize kids with air travel. This is a great opportunity for children who may have anxiety about flying alone or with family.
- Expect to pay an additional charge of about $50-100 per leg for unaccompanied minor services.
My older son turned 15 this year which gave us the choice of flying him as an unaccompanied minor (which entails the “tracking” and special services) or letting him fly as an adult. He has been flying with me since he was an infant and has some solo trips under his belt so we decided to let him fly as an adult. I hated not walking him to the gate, which was the worst part for Mommy. He was fine. It was a direct flight and his dad met him at the other end with no problem. Again, I made sure he had some cash and I still waited in the airport until his flight left in case of a problem. He also had more contact numbers than he would ever need in case of diversion, etc.
It probably helps that my husband flies and so I know a lot about what goes into it. In this day and age of families that live across the country, however, I believe that the opportunity to visit grandparents and others is worth the worry. Flying is statistically safer than driving and we have never had a problem in more than a dozen flights so far. I hope others will share their tips too and in the meantime, fly high!