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Unaccompanied minors on a flight: What to do

Travel Tips

Washington - It's a story that Carrie Calzaretta's 14-year-old son, Tyler, will probably tell his kids someday.

This summer, the Calzarettas paid American Airlines an extra $300 (about R4 000) for their son to fly round-trip as an unaccompanied minor in order to join a 10-day educational tour of Belize. When thunderstorms delayed his flight from Miami to Newark, the airline offered to re-book him for the next morning - but not to provide a hotel room for the night.

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Of course, selecting the right airline can also help - if you have a choice.

According to Calzaretta, the airline had subcontracted its escort duties to another company and the two parties couldn't agree on what to do about Tyler.

“Each blamed the other,” says Calzaretta, a writer who lives in Brielle, New Jersey “Ultimately, they threw him on a last-minute, late-night flight to avoid him having to sleep on the floor of the airport. “We had to pick him up in the wee hours and in a total panic.”

American says that Tyler Calzaretta's flight was delayed three hours, but he flew to Newark on the same flight he'd been booked on. “American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them,” says Ross Feinstein, an airline spokesperson.

Calzaretta remembers it differently. “It was horrific,” she says.

The same word could be used to describe several recent high-profile incidents involving unaccompanied minors. An Oregon man was charged with sexual assault in June after a flight attendant said she saw him abusing a 13-year-old girl flying alone from Dallas to Portland, Ore., on American Airlines. In September, JetBlue Airways reportedly confused two five-year-olds travelling from the Dominican Republic. As a result, a boy who was supposed to go to New York City ended up in Boston, and a boy travelling to Boston was sent to New York City.

The airline industry says it is taking incidents like these seriously. “The safety and well-being of all our passengers - especially children - is and will remain our highest priority,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry group. “Airline employees rely on their extensive customer service training to ensure that children travelling alone are well cared for and have the best possible flight experience.”

Airlines charge more than ever for unsupervised minors to fly but passengers don't necessarily get more for their money.

Some airlines are trying to allay parents' fears. Last fall, Air New Zealand began issuing “airbands” to unaccompanied minors. The wristbands are embedded with microchips and scanned, according to its literature, “at key stages of the journey,” triggering text notifications to up to five people. They cost $12 per child on domestic flights and $35 per child for each one-way international flight.

On US carriers, however, the most noticeable change has been the increase in unaccompanied minor fees and restrictions. In 2014, American Airlines increased the minimum age for kids to fly unescorted from 11 to 14. Late last year, United Airlines began requiring all unaccompanied minors between the ages of five and 15 to use the airline's $150-per-flight escort program.

So what to do? Guide your children through the process, particularly if they never have been on an airplane.

Laura Einsetler, a commercial airline pilot, says parents should “absolutely insist” on walking their child to the gate and waiting until the flight departs. Airlines issue gate passes for people accompanying minors to their gates. “Always stay until you know the flight has departed,” she adds. “Situations arise with weather or mechanical problems, and you do not want your child involved in any lengthy delay without you.”

“Get to the gate at least an hour before the flight is scheduled to leave,” advises Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant for American Airlines. “This will allow time for the unaccompanied minor to board first, meet the flight crew and feel comfortable about the process. Last-minute running through security and the airport and boarding last causes unnecessary stress for children who already are intimidated.”

Of course, selecting the right airline can also help - if you have a choice. David Forgues, a university administrator from Brea, Calif., recently sent his 10-year-old daughter, Anwei, from Reno, Nev., to Orange County, Calif., says she had a “very smooth” experience and Alaska Airlines employees were friendly, attentive and explained the process clearly. “The flight attendants always made sure I was okay and comfortable,” she told me.

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