He was turned away at the airport ticket counter.
FOR THE RECORD:
Travel Insider —Sunday's Travel Insider column incorrectly reported Delta's fee for unaccompanied minors. The fee, which Delta changed after the Travel section went to press, is generally $50 each way.
America West says it tells parents about this rule by phone and in a pop-up box that appears on its website when they book solo children online. But Derek's mother, Melinda, had apparently missed this when she reserved his ticket at http://www.americawest.com .
I have a lot of sympathy for Derek, whose disappointment inspired me to comb through nearly a dozen airlines' websites for their policies on children. What I found was a jumble:
Depending on the carrier, "minors" were defined as children up to age 11, 12 or 14.
Four of the 11 policies banned unaccompanied minors from taking a connecting flight (a stop with a change of planes), two allowed them, and five allowed only children 8 and older to take them.
Service fees for unaccompanied minors were $30 to $90 each way, varying by airline and flight, except on Southwest and JetBlue, which do not charge a fee to provide extra supervision of young passengers.
There were discounted child fares — or not. Infants younger than 2, 3, 7, 8 or 14 days were barred from flying — or no minimum was listed.
"Before you book a flight, you've got to check the policy of your airline," concluded Gordon Shields, Derek's father. Especially during the holidays and peak summer travel times.
The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't set many policies for handling children on airlines, said spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
The FAA allows children younger than 2 to sit on an adult's lap on an airplane. Airlines usually don't charge a fare for a child handled this way.
Children older than 2 must have their own seat. If they weigh 40 pounds or less, they need to be in a carseat or other child restraint system, according to FAA guidelines. A sticker on the seat should indicate whether it is approved for use on a plane.
Although carrying a child younger than 2 in your lap is permitted, Duquette said, "We do not advocate that at all. The concern is that if you hit turbulence, you might not be able to hold onto your child." The FAA recommends you reserve a separate seat for your baby and ask the airline whether it offers discounts on these. And many airlines allow an infant in a carseat to occupy a seat for free if any are vacant at takeoff. But don't count on an empty seat.
"That's always a gamble," said Bryan Baldwin, spokesman for JetBlue, which has been filling more than 83% of its seats on average this year.
Here are brief summaries of some airlines' policies on children. They apply to domestic flights, except where noted, and all fees are one way. All these airlines allow children younger than 2 to fly for free in a lap, at least in the U.S. Many policies bar unaccompanied minors from the day's last flight or red-eye flights. Contact the airline for details.
Alaska: Children younger than 2 are charged half-fare to occupy their own seat; older children pay full fare. Fees for unaccompanied minors ages 5 to 12 are $30 for flights that are nonstop or direct (stop, no change of planes), $60 for connecting; ages 5 to 7 must fly nonstop or direct.