Airline Rules for Unaccompanied Children
Thinking about letting your child fly alone? Make sure you check with your airline before you buy your ticket. Most airlines allow a child under the age of 18 to fly alone, and the rules and restrictions for what they call unaccompanied children are different for each airline. Airlines are free to enforce any rules they want, and no two airlines will have exactly the same polices.
In the US, there are no clear regulatory guidelines from the FAA with respect unaccompanied children, so it is important that you take the time to understand what your airline will allow. This brief overview will discuss the typical restrictions of these programs as well as a number of issues that you may want to address before allowing a child to travel alone on an airplane.
Age limits - minimums and maximums
Airlines treat children traveling alone differently depending on the age of the child. Most airlines have a minimum age for their unaccompanied child service, typically five, and a maximum age, typically 12.
Children younger than the minimum age will have to travel with an adult. If your child is appears to be beyond the age limit set by the airline, you or your child may be asked to provide some kind of proof of the child's age, so be prepared to have appropriate documentation to the airport.
Rules for older children
If a child is older than an airline's maximum age for their unaccompanied child program, that airline may allow that child to travel under their program's rules, but that child may not be able to use special services for unaccompanied children such as having an escort while at an airport or being allowed to board the aircraft early.
Other restrictions and requirements
For unaccompanied children traveling under the airline's supervision, there may be additional restrictions and requirements. While the number and type of restrictions vary by airline, typical restrictions may include the following:
- Allowing unaccompanied children only on nonstop flights
- Having a higher minimum age if the child has to change planes
- Not allowing unaccompanied children on the last flight of the day for that destination
- Not allowing unaccompanied children on flights the involve a second carrier
- Requiring earlier check in, typically 60 to 90 minutes before departure
- Charging adult fares or additional fees for unaccompanied children
One way around these restrictions is to simply not use the airline's program. This may only be an option for older children who are not required to fly under the airline's program, and would only make sense if you believe the child is mature enough to deal with typical airport situations such as navigating the check in process or dealing with schedule changes and delays.
Issues with older children
Children who are too old to travel under an airline's unaccompanied child program face other issues. The most important is that the child will have to be deal with any travel problem that comes up. This may include lost, stolen, or damaged baggage; airline security issues, flight delays and cancelations, and personal safety. You should prepare your child for common air travel problems and make sure that your child understands what to do in these situations.
The typical unaccompanied minor program has fees or other costs associated with the service. That fee may be higher if there is a connecting flight or there may be a discount if more than one unaccompanied child is traveling.
For domestic travel in the US, passengers under the age of 18 are not required to have identification to get past security. Depending on the airline, they may not be required to have identification to purchase a ticket or get a boarding pass issued. However, the adults who are responsible for the child at the departure airport and arrival airport are required to have acceptable identification. While the airlines typically do not specify the identification required for the adult who drops off or picks up the child, the same kinds of government-issued photo identification that an adult uses for airline travel(for example a drivers license or state-issued ID card) should be sufficient.
While not required, it is probably a good idea for older teens to have a valid photo identification, especially if the child is too old the airline's unaccompanied child program. AirSafe.com recommends the use of an identification that would be acceptable for domestic travel and that does not contain the child's home address. A US passport is especially attractive because it does not include the passport holder's address. The same is also true for passports from many other countries. State-issued photo identification cards are typically issued by the same organizations that provide drivers licenses and they are also an acceptable form of identification. If you use a state-issued identification card, it may be wise to use an address other than a home address in order to safeguard your child's privacy.
Escorting the child to and from the aircraft
Whenever possible, you should escort your child through security and preferably all the way to their seat in the aircraft. For some airlines, you may be required to escort the child to the gate. Also, the person picking up the child should be waiting at the gate at the arrival airport. You will likely need to go get an escort pass or similar document from the airline in order to enter the gate area. If you are not allowed to escort your child into the secure area of the airport, make sure that an appropriate airline representative is personally escorting your child.
Supervision by airline employees
The level of supervision that the airline has for unaccompanied children will vary by airline. It is very unlikely that the airline will one or more adults at a child's side on the aircraft. While in flight, the child will likely be supervised by the flight attendants. Make sure that a flight attendant, preferably the chief flight attendant, is aware of the unaccompanied child. Also, make sure that the child understands that if there are any problems during the flight, that the flight attendant should be contacted.
If the child has to take a connecting flight, make sure that the child knows that they have to be escorted to the next flight by an airline representative. Once the child is in the waiting area, there may be an airline representative at that airport who will be responsible for supervising your child between flights, but that person will likely have additional duties, including supervising other children. Make sure that your child understands the need to stay within sight of the responsible airline employee. If you think that your child may not be able to handle this kind of situation, then only use nonstop flights.
What happens if the aircraft is diverted or delayed?
Once the flight departs, the aircraft may have to make an unscheduled landing, either returning to the departure airport or going to an alternate airport. Also, a connecting flight could be delayed or canceled. Typically, the airline will contact the persons responsible for picking up or dropping off the child and make alternate flight arrangements. This could include arranging alternative transportation back to the original airport, arranging a later flight to the original destination, or arranging a flight to an alternative where a responsible adult can pick up the child.
A child who is flying alone, but who is not using the airline's unaccompanied child program will likely be treated like any other passenger. Your child should tell an airline representative of their travel situation, but that is no guarantee that the airline will be willing or able to offer any additional services.
Depending on the airline's policies, if the flight is delayed overnight, the airline may place the child in a hotel room under the supervision of an airline representative, in a hotel room alone, or in a hotel room with another unaccompanied child. The airline may also have a policy where it takes no responsibility for overnight accommodations for an unaccompanied child and will turn the child over to the local authorities for the night. It is important that you have a clear understanding of the airline's policies. At the airport, ask an airline representative for a printed copy of the airline's policies on unaccompanied children. Also, print a copy of any policies that you may find on the airline's web site.
What happens if no one is there to pick up the child?
If for some reason there is no responsible adult at the destination airport, what happens next will depend on the airline's policies. The airline may make an effort to contact the person who was to pick up the child and if there were some kind of short delay, there will likely not be any problems. If no one can be contacted at the destination, then the responsible adult at the departure airport may be contacted to discuss alternatives. For these reasons, it is very important that the airline have several alternatives for contacting the responsible adult at both the destination and departure airports. If no one is available to take responsibility for the child, the airline may have to turn over the child to the local authorities.
If a child is traveling unaccompanied on an international flight, there may be additional requirements beyond what the airline may require. Depending on the circumstances, you may need to have additional documentation to allow a child to leave the departure country or to enter the destination country. Contact the appropriate authorities for each involved country to ensure that all requirements are being met.
Flights on partner airlines
While you may arrange for your child's travel through one airline, the child may end up on a subsidiary of that airline or with a partner airline for some or all of the trip. Check with the airline to see if your child's trip will involve a subsidiary of that airline or a partner of that airline. If this is the case, review the policies for the other airline and if one or more of those policies are not acceptable, make alternative arrangements.
Unaccompanied flying checklists
The following checklists may be useful reminders for adults and children before and during a flight.
Checklist for adults
- Review the airline's written policies before making your reservation
- Find out how to contact the appropriate airline contact at both the departure airport and the destination airport.
- Provide the airline with at least two ways to contact a responsible adult (preferably two or more responsible adults) at both the departure airport and the arrival airport
- Have the child carry a copy of that same contact information
- Make sure that any responsible adult who will drop off or pick up a child has valid photo identification
- If possible, escort your child onto the aircraft
- Remain at the airport at least until the aircraft takes off
- Check on the progress of the flight, and if it the flight will be delayed or diverted, contact both the airline and the responsible adult at the destination airport
- If the child is able to use a telephone, provide the child with the means to make phone calls (change, phone card, cell phone, etc.)
Checklist for children
- At the airport, find out what person from the airline is responsible for you.
- While waiting to board your flight, stay in the gate area in sight of the airline employee who is responsible for you. If you have to leave the gate area, make sure that an airline employee is either escorting you or is aware of your location.
- In the airplane, make sure you contact the flight attendant if there are any problems
- When you get on the airplane, ask the flight attendant if you can be seated so that no one is sitting next to you.
- Read the Top 10 Safety Tips for Children Traveling Alone
Top 10 Safety Tips for Children Traveling Alone
Child travel advice
Using child restraints on aircraft
Tips for novice fliers
Airport security issues
Airline Baggage Issues
How to complain about airline service