It's been YEARS since they lost a kid, right?
May 30, 2010 4:35 PM   Subscribe

What tips does the Hive Mind have for sending my 7-year old off as an unaccompanied minor on a cross-country airplane trip?

My 7-year old son is heading off to a special-needs camp across the country in a month. On the way there, he will be traveling with other families. On the return flight, he will be alone (after being dropped off at the airport / checked in).

The special needs are related to a rare skin disorder. My son is very mature compared to his peers, although he's a little quiet when in new situations. He is not shy about asking adults for help when he needs it, though.

I am a frequent traveler, and my son has been on four airline trips with us already (although it's been two years since his last one).

The flight he is booked on is a "direct" flight, in that it is a single flight number, but the flight stops in St. Louis. (My research shows that normally this flight is operated by the same equipment but my own experience on these kind of routings suggests that an equipment change / gate change is not out of the question.)

What should we do to prepare the 7-year old for flying on his own? We are giving him his own limited-use cell phone so we can stay in touch with him.

Bonus question: His extremely overprotective grandmother (my mother) thinks we're nuts to endanger our kid this way. :( What can we do to reassure her that our son is mature enough to handle the trip and that the airlines don't lose kids?
posted by QuantumMeruit to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There's a special program with airlines where they can assign a pseudo guardian while he's on the plan. I flew like that as a kid and have had it done for my kid. Basically it's just stewardess who keeps tabs on him while she's on doing her other duties and in general keeps an eye on the kid and makes sure they're delivered ok. Costs extra though.

Make sure he has plenty of activities, books, ipod, games, whatever usually keeps him occupied.

Tell Grandma to she's being extremely overprotective and to relax. Otherwise, her issues are not your problem.
posted by >> at 4:43 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

What airline is he flying? Find out with them if they will assign someone to watch out for him, and see if you might get that person's name in advance, so he'll know who to ask for if he has any issues.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:47 PM on May 30, 2010

We've sent our son, and it was good. The one that blind sighted me was making sure that my son had a watch and could tell time and understood how time zones work. He had no idea how long the flight was, and when he did he had no way to track progress. This made the flight stressful for him. On subsequent flights eliminating this one issue made a huge difference. Set the watch to the time in the arrival time zone.
posted by kch at 4:49 PM on May 30, 2010

I did a similar thing at 9, and it was awesome.

I even had to change planes with a long-ish layover, which the airline helped me with, and that was the scary part.

Airports and airplanes are pretty much the safest places in the entire world these days, you've got nothing to worry about.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 4:51 PM on May 30, 2010

I don't think it's fair to characterize Grandma as being "extremely overprotective" in this particular case.

Most parents I know wouldn't leave their 7 yr olds alone for a birthday party with other kids. They stay with them. We've coached soccer and I've volunteered at the elementary school, and, at that age, when the kids are only in second grade, parents tend to want to chaperone, in my experience.

Besides, since you are asking this question, it seems like you yourself have some reservations about doing this?

So I think grandma's position is not totally unreasonable.

But this is not my son and it's not grandma's son. He's yours, and if you feel okay with him going, than you just need to tell Grandma that. Point in your favor: It is a direct flight. That's good, as changing flights can get confusing, since sometimes there are gate changes at the last moment or connections get delayed, etc. And you may be able to get a flight attendant to look over him to some extent.

Or maybe Grandma would be willing to go with your son, if you are unable to, since she is worried about him traveling alone?
posted by misha at 4:55 PM on May 30, 2010

FWIW you can tell grandma that I did this all the time as a kid - my parents were divorced, my mom lived in NYC and my dad lived in Toronto. They had shared custody; I went up to Canada every other weekend from the time they would let me on the plane. I got my Admirals Club card at 8.

You used to check in as an unaccompanied minor, and then a parent would take you down through security and to the gate, where you'd get passed off to a gate agent at pre-boarding. You'd then be handed off to the chief pursur, and be seated in a bulkhead seat across from a crew jumpseat.

I assume it works the same now, except that you are handed off to a gate agent at check-in since mom and dad can't clear security. Obviously the airline does need to know your child is flying unaccompanied.

I often see kids being excorted by gate agents in airports; they all have big orange tags with their flight information and stuff now. It seems well organised. And just so you know, it was always fun, the crew was always fantastic to me, and I was never lost or misplaced!

Also I got a lot of shirley temple drinks and a LOT of wings and cockpit tours. Alas, there are no more cockpit tours.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:57 PM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

DarlingBri: "except that you are handed off to a gate agent at check-in since mom and dad can't clear security."

Well, if you ask nicely they might let you have a gate pass. I went with a friend to Midway and they gave me a gate pass to go through security and all the way down to the gate with her, since she had a bad back and needed help carrying her luggage. For a parent, they might do the same. Mind you I was subject to all the same security that people actually flying were, including taking all lotions and chapsticks in my purse and putting them in the 3-1-1 Ziplock baggie.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:02 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I flew a lot as an unaccompanied minor. I was older than your son, though not by too much. I traveled by myself and with my younger sister. We never got lost. We were on a twin turbo-prop caught in a bad storm. The adults were FREAKING out, but I thought it was fun. I was also on a plane that lost hydraulic control as it was trying to land (hydraulics control the steering on the ground). We landed fine and then waited for a tow to the gate. I'm telling this to demonstrate that even in scary situations - I came out fine.

The extra eye (from >>) idea is a good one - I would probably spring for that if I could afford it.

I would review with him who is safe to ask for assistance (uniformed airline personnel, mothers with children). Prepare him so he knows what to do in case of a gate change. The key here is knowing how to get help from the right adults, but it doesn't hurt if he can read and understand basic airport signs.

My experience tells me that the airline staff will look out for an unaccompanied minor, whether or not you pay the extra $$.

What you are planning is something that many parents wouldn't consider at his age. But you know your son and what he can handle. And this sounds like a great opportunity for him. You might ask the camp he is traveling to for their suggestions - I'm sure many other children in their care have had similar situations.

On preview, seconding Threeway Handshake and DarlingBri.
posted by jeoc at 5:08 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I flew alone for the first time when I was seven, to meet my father and brother for a vacation. I vividly remember munching on a bag of cookies I was sent off with, and listening to Winnie the Pooh audio tapes, and crying. It was a scary thing to do, but once I got there I felt really grown up. On the way back, my brother and I flew together without our parents, and my big brother was very anxious, but I'd been through it before so I was totally cool. That part was pretty great. So I don't know if I have a lot of advice, but the treats and some immersive entertainment definitely helped for me, and knowing what to expect (I'd flown before too, but there are issues about how long is the flight, where will Mom drop you off, who will walk you to the gate, where exactly will someone pick you up after landing, etc.). I think it's probably a good idea to tell your son what to do/who to ask if he needs help, but try not to put ideas into his head about what could go wrong. At that age, I always got much more worried about things once my parents told me what the dangers were -- left alone I tended to think things would be OK.
posted by unsub at 5:09 PM on May 30, 2010

I think you just need to realize that your child won't really be alone. I flew as an unaccompanied minor a number of times between the ages of 8 and 11 (and I remember the anxiety and excitement of finally being able to be go it really alone as a 12-year-old). They almost certainly will not give you the option of not letting your child be a designated unaccompanied minor.

Unless they've changed things horribly significantly, your child will have an escort the entire time you are not with them. He'll get on the plane before the other passengers, and will be told to remain on the plane until all of the other passengers get off. If there is a plane change, he will be escorted from one flight to the next, sometimes on one of the awesome airport carts. He should then be escorted to the baggage claim or whatever other designated meeting spot and should not be left with anyone apart from the designated pick-up people.

My worst flight experiences were with nasty other unaccompanied minors in the row behind me. I had one experience where the kids kept jabbing me with their "flight wing" pins. I think they don't give those out anymore, though, so no worries about that particular issue. Give him something to do, give him some concept of How Much Is Left, and make sure he's excited about where he's headed.

Yay summer camp!
posted by that girl at 5:16 PM on May 30, 2010

Just to be totally clear, I often see kids being escorted by gate agents, not extorted. That would be both wrong and difficult to staff.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:17 PM on May 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

nth-ing trying to get a gate pass to escort him through through the airport, which seems the most risky part of the trip to me. This was offered to me recently at a major airport by a skycap (didn't even know these things still existed), so they are definitely out there, I have no idea how you secure one, tho'.
posted by snowymorninblues at 5:32 PM on May 30, 2010

I worked at a summer camp that had usually ten or so kids who would fly back home at the end of the summer. As a counselor going to the same airport, I was tasked with dropping off a couple such kids.

Rest assured that if an unaccompanied minor went missing it would roughly equate to the End of the World for the airline involved. They will assign someone to keep an eye on the minor and will be on him like flies on honey. The overprotective grandmother has nothing to worry about here because large organisations that take on responsibility for kids are typically quite overprotective themselves.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:42 PM on May 30, 2010

I sent my son unaccompanied on transatlantic flights from age 5 onward. Paying the unaccompanied minor fee was worth it - he always felt safe and was well attended (and occasionally upgraded to business class)!

We even had one nightmare flight where he got a terrible stomach bug on the plane and was ambulanced out of LHR straight off the plane. The flight attendants were amazing! I asked him just now what he remembered of all this and he said, "that was cool!"

Obviously, YMMV but it worked for us and flight attendants were generally terrific!
posted by mozhet at 5:52 PM on May 30, 2010

Thanks. Clarification: My mother is overprotective of the grandchildren in general; I don't think it's beyond the pale to be concerned with a 7-year old flying alone, but the way my mother is talking about things it's like we're sending him into a warzone. (I was thinking of inserting a joke about ORD or LGA here, but...nah.) I am more-or-less resigned to the fact that nothing I tell her will assuage her fears, but many of the comments here about how the process works will be helpful to relay to her, I think.

My own sense is that at 7, he's a little on the young side for navigating an airport by himself, but the comments so far have been VERY helpful in reassuring me that he's not really going to be doing it by himself and that there are many safety measures in place to provide security (and reassurance).

Most comments have been very helpful across the board. Thank you! I am really most interested in ways to help my kid prepare / not freak out / have fun. I totally forgot about the time zone issue, so we started working on that this evening.

Also, FWIW, we had a half-birthday party for my son at age 5.5, with about 15 kids. I only remember two parents staying.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 5:58 PM on May 30, 2010

I can not imagine that the departing guardian would not be given a gate pass. Heck my wife made in into the plane helping her mom just a couple years ago. I've seen kids with an id packet around their necks. I'd expect some kind of id hand off check at the arrival also.
posted by sammyo at 6:02 PM on May 30, 2010

We have sent our 7-year-old special-needs kid twice as an unaccompanied minor, Charlotte to Chicago. We travel frequently so he had been on 30-plus flights before and had the basic routine down. This is on US Airways, they require a $100 fee each way on top of the ticket price. We get a gate pass to see him off, and he is the first to get on the outgoing plane, and then the people who are meeting him (his grandparents) get a pass to meet him at the gate, and he is the last to get off, accompanied by a flight attendant both ways. He is never unattended by an adult. We send him with snacks and a portable DVD player with videos. The way it works on US Airways, you have to fill out a form at the beginning saying who will be meeting the unaccompanied minor, and the people who are meeting him have to have photo ID to pick him up. They've never given us or the grandparents a hassle about getting a gate pass to go with him through security.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:12 PM on May 30, 2010

Thousands of kids fly unaccompanied every year. My 8-year-old niece is one of them -- her parents are divorced and now live 900 miles apart.

I went to the airport with Niece and her mom to put Niece on the plane for a trip to her dad's. We had to check in at the airline's Special Services desk, which was a slower line than regular checkin. (However, this is also the line where people flying with their pets have to check in, so we saw lots of dogs. Yay, dogs!) There was extra paperwork, including full contact info for both parents. Mom was automatically given a gate pass to take Niece to the gate. I asked nicely and was able to get one as well (I'm not even a blood relative but we sort of finessed that part.) The unaccompanied minors were the first people to board. It was near Christmas so there were about a half-dozen of them on this flight, ages 4ish to 15ish. I think they had them all sitting together but I'm not sure about that.

You mentioned that your son has a skin disorder. I would suggest that his travel papers should include any pertinent medical information, just in case. I would also check with the camp to see if someone will accompany him all the way to the gate for his return flight. If no one from the camp is assigned to do this, call the airline and find out what their procedures are.

I think your son will be just fine, and I hope he has an awesome time at camp.
posted by shiny blue object at 6:43 PM on May 30, 2010

He'll be fine. All airports will allow you to get a gate pass so that you can bring him to the gate. Any airline that allows unaccompanied minors (I think they all do) should make sure that he stays safe and will take care of him. Usually they leave the minors on the plane until everyone else gets off, then they will escort them to the gate where their parents/guardians are waiting (because they got gate passes). Since your son has been on flights before, he'll be fine (although when I took my first unaccompanied minor trip I was a little older I think and I had had more flying experience. I have done 2 hour trips and a few crosscountry 5-6 hour trips. The airlines are always great - especially JetBlue.)
posted by majikstreet at 7:09 PM on May 30, 2010

You *do not* have to hand your kid off at security. You do not have to "ask nicely" for a gate pass. You are *required* to get a get a gate pass and escort your child to the gate, and to not leave the airport until you receive confirmation from the gate personnel that the plane is in the air. The adult(s) handling the departure will need to have name and contact info for the receiving person when they fill out all the paperwork at the ticket counter during departure. The person at the arrival end will likewise then need to get a gate pass at the ticket counter and clear security to the arrival gate well in advance of expected arrival time.

Since he's been on several flights already, I'm not sure there's much else that needs to be explained.

I speak as someone who sent her kids on some seven or eight flights as UAMs, starting when they were 5 and 7. It is scary the first time, but let me tell you what's scarier--sending your 12 and 14 yo off across the country as *unaccompanied* minors, through a connecting airport, in the middle of winter. Yeesh.
posted by drlith at 7:56 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Make sure he has some snacks with him in an accessible place in case he gets hungry. If he is to buy something to eat during the flight, be sure to find out ahead of time whether the airline's on board food service accepts cash...some inflight services are now credit card only.
posted by applemeat at 8:07 PM on May 30, 2010

What tips does the Hive Mind have for sending my 7-year old off as an unaccompanied minor on a cross-country airplane trip?

Uh, don't? I'd send someone with the kid, on the theory that if airlines can lose luggage, then they can also lose track of kids, like in this recent case with a blind teenager.

Seven is quite young for a kid to figure out a Plan B if the airlines lose track of them. Even if Grandmother is overprotective in general, I think she's right here.
posted by zippy at 11:54 PM on May 30, 2010

That was not a child, zippy; that was an 18-year-old woman. That's a pretty different situation, IMHO.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 5:34 AM on May 31, 2010

I wouldn't send a UAM on a flight that required a plane change, and many airlines don't allow it. A direct or nonstop flight is extremely unlikely to present an opportunity for that kind of foulup.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:01 AM on May 31, 2010

It's unclear from your question whether the airline is expecting an unaccompanied minor. Many (all?) airlines won't allow a 7-year-old to fly unaccompanied if there's an equipment change. If the airline's accepted an unaccompanied minor booking, you'll know they don't expect an equipment change for that flight; if you show up at the airport with the 7-year-old booked as an adult, he probably won't be let on.
posted by deeaytch at 6:31 AM on May 31, 2010

My 9 year old (who has flown as a UAM a bunch of times) says, "don't be worried, the people next to you are usually nice and to not be embarassed about asking to get up and use the bathroom."
posted by vespabelle at 9:43 AM on May 31, 2010

Since you asked, I'm going to give you an answer that you may not want to hear, but I think you should:

2 of my 3 kids (10 and 12 at the time) went from Boston to NC to visit Grandma. I got them to the plane, waited for them to board, they called me when they landed.

Seemed fine. Grandma was able to fly home with them.

Weeks later, I got the full story: turns out they were sitting next to a man they described as "creepy." This guy sat between them and spent the entire flight making disgustingly inappropriate sexual remarks to them, at one point putting his hand on the 10 year old's leg.

Yeah, they were terrified. It was horrible. Why didn't they ask for help? Because they're kids on a plane, the flight attendants were busy, and the guy knew enough to act normally when he needed to.

Does this happen to most kids? Does it matter? Sure, most of the people are nice. just need that ONE freak to sit near your kid.

Just pointing out that this is what can (and DID) happen to an unaccompanied kid on a plane.

I would never, ever do this again.
posted by dzaz at 5:07 PM on May 31, 2010

If all goes well, no problem. But you need a contingency plan for canceled flights, bad weather, missed connections. Make sure the kid has an excellent list of phone numbers (duplicated in the backpack) and a credit card for emergencies, a whistle and instructions on when to use it, a backpack with a blanket, some granola bars, water, and lots of small bills tucked away.
posted by theora55 at 6:13 PM on May 31, 2010

I would practice phrases he might have to use, like, "Excuse me; I would like to get up [to use the bathroom]" and ways to ask for help in case something like dzaz's scenario comes up -- don't be specific, but just generally make sure he knows who to talk to and exactly what to say in case he is uncomfortable or worried.
posted by ramenopres at 10:04 PM on May 31, 2010

vespabelle: "the people next to you are usually nice"

Heck, I was scared on my first flight at 21 and the lady next to me offered to hold my hand.

Drlith: Required or not, asking nicely and being polite is generally a good idea in airports, where tempers get you into trouble.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:12 PM on May 31, 2010

Following on the watch idea - if your child will be changing time zones, maybe you could get him 2 watches and set one for each time zone. Superman watch is for home, Spiderman is for camp. If I were a kid I would wear both of them and it would look so cool.
posted by CathyG at 9:45 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to fly alone all the time. Starting at around age 6. I was just fine. There was a nice flight attendant lady taking care of me and giving me cookies and walking me onto the plane. And then, on my first flight alone ever, I got sick. The man sitting next to me was so nice - he helped me clean up and pressed the button for me for the flight attendant to come take away the garbage. (By the way, how gross of a job task is that?)
posted by dithmer at 6:41 PM on June 2, 2010

« Older Critters make my skin crawl   |   How do I shut down poor me? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.