How old should a kid be to fly unaccompanied?
August 14, 2017 9:58 PM   Subscribe

Airlines allow kids to fly as unaccompanied minors at age 5. My husband's kids are 6 and 9 and have flown with parents frequently and successfully. Is this too young for a direct 100-minute flight?

My husband's kids (6 and 9) live in a city that is a 100-minute plane flight from us. Since his divorce, he has flown every other weekend without fail to spend his custody time with them in that city. They spend holidays with us in the city that we live in.

His custody agreement with his ex-wife says that she is required to allow them to fly unaccompanied as soon as they are old enough according to airline regulations. She has previously suggested that they do so on occasions when it has been convenient for her, but it hasn't actually happened yet. She is very high conflict and has also expressed that she will never agree to anything that makes my husband's life more convenient, and that she enjoys the thought of him wasting his time and being cramped into tiny narrow seats.

We don't have any desire to stop traveling to the city in which the kids live for nearly all of our custody time. However, we would like to occasionally have the kids travel to us as well, mainly because we have much more for them to do here, and we also want them to feel very at home with us as well.

If the kids fly as unaccompanied minors, they would be escorted by a parent to the gate, handed off to a flight attendant assigned to chaperone them, and met at the gate by the other parent.

Is 6 and 9 just too young to do this? They are very good, well-mannered kids, and they have each flown with their parents extensively (more than 10 round trips in the past 2 years) and are comfortable with it. We just want to make sure that this is a reasonable thing for them.
posted by LittleMissCranky to Human Relations (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
They're flying together and they're watching out for each other and they also have a lot of flight experience already. At 6 I thought flying alone from Memphis to Boston was so exciting and loved every minute of it. You'd be escorting them to the gate and the other parent would meet them at the other gate. Laws and regulations are federal - much more strict - on airplanes than they are in your neighborhood. I think this is fine.
posted by bendy at 10:09 PM on August 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think together, they will do fine. Individually, I would let the 9 yo, but be hesitant with the 6 yo.

My step-brother in law worked for a large US Airline. He and his family had amazing flying privileges. His kids, around your husband's age flew SF to NY alone all the time. One time, they could not get a direct flight and needed me, living in Chicago, to meet them at one O'Hare gate and bring them to another gate. I did that. We had to run. For the 11 minutes it took for us to go from gate to gate, those kids were howling, laughing, giggling and having a blast.

I think it is also very dependent on the specific children. Your husband and you know the children well. Go with your gut. Are they mature kids for their age? Will they listen to the flight attendants? Can they entertain them selves for an hour and a half? Can the 6 yo navigate to the bathroom and back? My guess is yes.

Fwiw, I would consider the first time they do it be when their mother suggests it for her convenience. That way she cannot argue and if there are any snafus (plane delayed, food spilled, etc) she has some blame as it was her idea. When the proof of concept works, then be more aggressive about suggesting it.
posted by AugustWest at 10:29 PM on August 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

I was flying alone as young as eight or nine, and never had a problem. Though I do recall spending an hour or so in a backroom at an airport once because somebody gave my dad the wrong arrival information. It's certainly a situation that airlines are well equipped to handle.
posted by philip-random at 11:32 PM on August 14, 2017

and no, I didn't panic when alone. They supplied me with comics.
posted by philip-random at 11:33 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

A good friend of mine has kids who have done this multiple times. I believe that the first time was just the older kid, when he was eight. Now they're eight and ten, and they're both veterans. They've been fine every time.

Of course, I imagine it depends on the kid.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:41 AM on August 15, 2017

Even if the whole world agreed that they are old enough to fly unaccompanied, this wouldn't solve your problem of their other parent's recalcitrance.

From a strategic standpoint, I think I would accept her suggestion of having the kids fly alone next time it is convenient for her (even if it happens to be massively inconvenient for you and there is nothing more you'd like to do than fly to the kids' city on that trip). Once it's done once, at her direction, all her objections fly out the window.

I don't know that I would argue with her about this. For a combative person, it's likely to get their back up ('others know more about my kids than I do? you want to tell me that you know better than I what is in the best interest of the kids that I have primary custody of? just for your convenience??') and possibly make her dig in more than ever before. Let her suggest it again, do everything you can to make it go great, and then treat it as a given for the future.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:45 AM on August 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's fine. Unaccompanied minors are very carefully cared for by the flight attendants. As a kid, I flew to TX at this age, sometimes with my younger brother, from the age of 8. It's a very normal thing for flight crews to handle.
posted by Miko at 6:01 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think they'll be fine – my kids aged 11 and 8 flew from Boston via Reykjavik to Boston last week. Just like your kids they had flown a lot. Even the very early morning connection went without any problems. Even as they might fight otherwise they are pulled together in situations like this.
posted by zeikka at 6:11 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

My kids are 7 and 9 and while they could fly unaccompanied at these ages, it is not something I would want them doing regularly. Flying in 2017 is a huge pain in the ass, it's not like it was when I was a child in the 80's, and it doesn't seem like a burden that is fair to repeatedly place on kids of this age. So I don't think you should plan on this happening for regular visits, it should probably start off as one or two time per year and then increase from there as they get older. Once it does eventually happen, your husband should fly with them once as sort of a training run to talk through expectations, safety rules, to familiarize them with the two airports.

Mostly I think this is his situation to negotiate with his ex and you should stay out of it, even if that means he continues to exclusively fly to see them for longer than you would personally like.
posted by scantee at 6:52 AM on August 15, 2017

a recent NYT article with tips for kids flying alone:
posted by smokyjoe at 6:59 AM on August 15, 2017

My kid flew alone at those ages on direct flights. He's 11 this year and had a connecting flight. When you fly as an unaccompanied minor you are escorted from place to place and the parents or adults, drop off and meet you right at the gate. My kid always thinks of it as quite the adventure.
posted by trbrts at 7:06 AM on August 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Flying in 2017 is a huge pain in the ass, it's not like it was when I was a child in the 80's

The on-plane experience is really not any different. Yes, security and the gates are more of a hassle than in the 80s, but the kids won't be alone for that component - they'll be escorted by adults. Once boarded and in their seats, it's the same as ever: Deck of cards, plastic wings, can of soda. I fly a lot for work and see kids traveling alone on almost every flight I take.
posted by Miko at 7:17 AM on August 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I took my first flight alone when I was 5 and did a lot of traveling alone (always direct flights) as a child. I think your kids will be fine - especially together. My biggest complaint was when my seatmate wouldn't play cards with me, so the built in playmate would have been nice.

I had one experience where they canceled the flight after we boarded the plane (and my parent had left the airport) - so I had to figure out how to follow everyone to get in line for rebooking, and then find myself lunch at the airport. It was a bit scary (primarily because I couldn't get a hold of the parent who was meeting me at my destination to let them know I would be late) but all turned out fine - they put me in first class for the rescheduled flight. So two lessons: parents should stay at the gate until the flight actually leaves, and give the kids a cell phone for contacting parent should something come up.
posted by purplevelvet at 8:20 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

So two lessons: parents should stay at the gate until the flight actually leaves, and give the kids a cell phone for contacting parent should something come up.

My son just got back from his first unaccompanied flight, from JFK to San Jose - he flew Jet Blue. They make you stay at the airport, at the gate, until the plane leaves the ground and isn't coming back, so this may no longer be an issue.

And yes, I would say any kid flying alone should have a cell phone if at all possible.
posted by lyssabee at 8:41 AM on August 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ask them. Take a trip to the airport, ask the airline for a pass to the gate, go through security, and let them have some sense of the process. Then ask if they think they'd be comfortable going on the plane on their own. The ultimate decision is up to the parents, but it's good to get their viewpoint.
posted by theora55 at 8:48 AM on August 15, 2017

Maybe I'm the outlier here, but I don't see the problem with either a 6 year old or a 9 year old flying, alone or together. The only time they're actually unaccompanied is when they're on the plane, and there's nowhere to go. I'm not even sure what the problem might be, aside from the former spouse being petulant.

On preview: I'd tell any kid flying that if anything happens as far as cancellation, etc. ask a flight attendant. That's better than them calling me first, while the flight attendants could be leaving plane or gate area.
posted by cnc at 8:58 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing that it is fine. If anybody, including the kids, is nervous about it, consider a test flight, where they take care of themselves from gate to gate, sitting way apart in the plane from whomever is the test flight parent or other adult chaperone.
posted by beagle at 8:59 AM on August 15, 2017

I think if the plan is for the kids to do this only occasionally, it should be just fine. I would not recommend doing it frequently, because as disruptive as it is for your husband to be flying every other weekend, it feels like it would be even more disruptive for a kid -- they don't have the option to do any hanging out with their friends, they're having to pack/unpack, plus a 100-minute flight realistically probably means arriving 90+ minutes early to go through security + the flight itself + travel time to/from the airport -- easily 4 hours or more each way. I feel like asking kids to waste 8 hours or more of their weekend twice a month (or even once a month) is too much for dealing with a situation their parents have created. That said, if it's more like flying unaccompanied to planned longer vacations so a parent doesn't have to do extra round trips to accompany them, or a few other weekends maybe once every 3-4 months, I don't think that's a major issue. Just keep in mind that this isn't costless the kids -- if the ex-wife enjoys thinking of her ex wasting his time and sitting in uncomfortable seats, this is just transferring that cost to the kids (albeit presumably with more legroom since they probably have smaller legs -- but all the other annoyances/time sucks of air travel will apply to them).
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:07 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

They sound like they're as ready as kids can be for solo travel. My daughter traveled alone between us and her grandparents, with longer flights than that, when she was 9-11.

Teach them both the phrase "unacompanied minor," which they are to use in case they get lost or confused - "I'm an uncompanied minor; can you help me?" (And they should know to ask airline staff, but really, almost anyone in an airport is going to either ignore them or shove them in the direction of official personnel.)

Get them each an ID card - something with their name and contact info for parents on it. You don't need anything "official" - use something like IDCreator to make the badge online, or make one in Word on a business card template, print & laminate.

When my daughter traveled unacompanied on flights from Oakland to Boise, her card said that she was traveling between parents and grandparents, and had contact info for both.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:31 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Tip for any travel involving kids. Take a picture of them at the gate or getting in the car. If there's any question about their whereabouts, you have a photo in the clothes they're wearing.
posted by theora55 at 11:54 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

If by direct you actually mean nonstop, I see no reason why most kids would have a problem taking a less than two hour flight at that age.

If by direct you mean what an airline does, which is a flight from one city to another with an intermediate stop in one or more other cities. (Think MIA-DFW-TUL, all with one flight number) The problem with those is that the flight number continues, but the specific aircraft often does not. While airlines do provide assistance between gates for UMs, there are many fewer kids that would handle a connection well compared to a nonstop flight.
posted by wierdo at 2:08 PM on August 15, 2017

My kids at those ages flew a lot as unaccompanied minors. No problems, ever, though once or twice connections between flights were very boring for them.
posted by anadem at 8:54 PM on August 15, 2017

I flew unaccompanied every other weekend from the age of 6 to well into my teens, from New York to Toronto. This was obviously a long time ago and the mechanics of the process have changed, but the basic premise hasn't. They are unaccompanied by you, but are accompanied at all times.

And FWIW they will be taken straight through security without having to queue in the long lines, so that's a bonus!
posted by DarlingBri at 1:16 AM on August 16, 2017

My 6 yo gets lost whenever I take my eyes off her.
I would never, ever let her do this.
But your kids sound different. If you think they (due to maturity etc.) can handle it, you go for it.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:55 AM on August 16, 2017

Just to reiterate, unaccompanied minors are only unaccompanied by parents/guardians when they've boarded the airplane. They are accompanied by their parents/guardians through security and to the gate and up until they walk on to the jetway. Once on board, they are typically placed in the very back row of seats, right by the flight attendants. The flight attendants give them personalized safety instructions and check on them regularly throughout the flight. If they have a connecting flight, they are accompanied by at least one flight attendant, usually two (and usually female). At their destination, the person who is picking them up from the airport is waiting for them at the arrival gate.

If the custody decree states that she has to let this happen, she has to let it happen. If your husband feels like they're old enough, they're old enough.
posted by cooker girl at 8:35 AM on August 16, 2017

I flew solo as an unaccompanied minor from age 5 onwards and loved it. I felt special, the airlines took good enough care of me, it was convenient for everyone. If I had an older sibling, I imagine it would be even better.
posted by hepta at 8:16 AM on August 18, 2017

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