Michele Borba: How to know if your kid is really ready to fly alone (yes alone)

by | Jul 5, 2010 | Resilience, Thriving, Self-Reliance and Agency

Thinking of having your kid fly alone to visit someone or going off to camp this summer? A review of last year’s news may make you want to rethink your plans. Here’s a recap:

It seemed yet another unaccompanied minor flying to visit Grandma and Grandpa was somehow “misplaced” by the airlines. The child landed in not only in the wrong city but state! I’m well aware that airlines frequently misplace luggage (why I’ve learned long ago to never ever check a bag), but I’m still baffled as to how it is that airplane employees can misplace a ten-year-old child. (How????)

In this case Dad did all the “right” things to ensure that his ten-year old daughter was delivered safely to her grandparents. Dad filled out the required airline paperwork for Continental Airlines, walked his daughter to the gate at Logan International Airport with an airline employee, and even watched his child board the plane while his parents waited patiently at the Cleveland gate for her arrival.

Despite all those efforts, the daughter landed in Newark, N.J. leaving two grandparents and her dad frantically trying to track her whereabouts for 45 minutes. (Can you imagine the terror?) All because the flight crew of the connecting flight failed to check the young girl’s paperwork (which was hanging prominently around her neck) and escorted her to the wrong aircraft.

The good news is that the ten-year old was found safe and sound and was reunited with her grandparents. Meanwhile I’m sure most parents who hearing this are in full panic mode about letting their kids fly solo anytime in the near future – if ever.

I know from personal experience that there are hundreds of kids who fly alone and really do land in the right city. I also know that kids with parents living great distances apart that flying is the only option. I’ve also watched dozens of responsible airline employees help kids board planes, review their paperwork, give out individual safety instructions, and firmly let those minors know they are “not to move” until they are personally escorted to the next plane by a designated employee. Still there are always stories like this that remind us that the unaccompanied minor system is not fail-proof.

The parenting solution for this dilemma involves these five quick tests to help assess whether your kid is really ready to fly alone in the friendly skies.

1. Airline Test: Are you clear about the airline policy about unaccompanied minors? Do you know exactly what they will or won’t do for your child? Never make assumptions! (I’d still take a marking pen and boldly print my child’s destination on that hanging ticket pouch).

2. Responsibility Test: Is your kid responsible enough to fly without you? Can he spend a night away without a problem? Can he carry his backpack, cell phone and spending money on a field trip, play-date, or sleepover without losing them? Does he listen and follow directions? Your child’s age here isn’t nearly as important as his maturity level. I’ve met seven year olds who are far more responsible than many fourteen year olds.

3. Independence Test. Can he entertain himself for a few hours? Can he stay seated for the duration of a flight? Is he capable of asking an adult for help or to use the restroom? Can he be left alone the length of the flight time? Is he assertive enough to speak up and say he getting on is on the wrong plane? Does he feel secure about taking this jaunt?

4. Phone Test. It so happens I’m writing this blog as I’m flying home. So I used the four hours as an opportunity to get the flight attendants’ perspective about unaccompanied minors. Their advice: Make sure your child has a cell phone with him, knows how to contact you or his designated pickup and use it in an emergency. Does your child have that skill down pat?

5. Gate Test. Can your child read his destination and gate number on an airline ticket? Can he also read the monitor that lists departures and arrivals and match those to his ticket?

Even if you say, “Yes” to all five tests, your child still should have flown in your company until he feels comfortable flying. He should also know:

How to use the lavatory, seatbelt, store items under the seat in front of him, and put away and lock his tray.

How to check the monitor and find the gate. (Except of course in Atlanta where I’m still having problems).

And he should be able to do all those tasks without assistance.

Of course flying is much easier when there are no connections. When changing planes is required, the scale of each of these five tests goes up a notch.

Above all, use the INSTINCT TEST (as in yours). Nothing beats parental instinct.

So now do you think your kid is still ready to fly alone?