Is Your Kid Really Ready to Fly Alone?

by | Jun 18, 2009 | Uncategorized

Thinking of having your kid fly alone to visit someone this summer? After this week’s news you just may want to rethink your plans.

It seems yet another unaccompanied minor flying to visit Grandma and Grandpa was someone “misplaced” by an airline and landed in not only in the wrong city, but the wrong 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.

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, NJ 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 is safe and sound and with her grandparents. Meanwhile I’m sure most parents hearing this are in full panic mode about letting their kids fly solo anytime in the near future – if ever.

So what ‘s a parent to do? In divorced families there isn’t always an option when it comes to kids visiting their other parent. And spending a summer with grandparents is many a kid’s fondest memory. My advice:  Don’t be too quick to cancel your child’s flight reservation –just yet anyway.

I know from personal experience that there are hundreds of kids who fly alone and really do land in the right city. 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 one that remind us that the unaccompanied minor system is not fail-proof. The parenting solution for this dilemma involves 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 14-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, seat belt, store items under the seat in front of him and put away and lock his tray. This is when you can teach your child 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.

So now do you think your kid is still ready to fly alone? (By the way, at what age do you think kids are ready to fly alone?)

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Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions.