In airline shorthand, they're known as "U.M.'s," and there seem to be more of them every day. Unaccompanied minors--usually children age 5 to 11, often flying between one parent and another--fill hundreds of thousands of airline seats on U.S. flights each year.
Northwest Airlines threw a spotlight on this subject on June 1 when it doubled its mandatory fee for helping children fly unaccompanied on connecting flights. For a round-trip journey involving change of planes in each direction, Northwest now charges $120 above the regular ticket cost to supervise an unaccompanied child. Delta made an identical price move a day later. Both airlines cited the mounting costs of deploying staff to escort children between flights.
Other major carriers, most of which charge $60 in such situations, have resisted changes for the moment. But if the numbers of unaccompanied children continue to grow, further price bumps may well lie ahead.
How many children are flying on their own?
"We are anticipating that we will probably service close to 150,000 unaccompanied minors this year. In 1995, it was 110,000," said Northwest spokeswoman Kathy Peach. Those figures amount to a 36% increase in three years; that means more than 400 unaccompanied children are aloft with Northwest on any given day. But as Peach points out, summertime (especially on Fridays) and Christmas are far busier than other times of year. "We can do 1,500 kids through Minneapolis in a day in the summer," said Peach. A United Airlines spokesman estimated it has at least 100,000 children traveling solo yearly and rising. And Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Linda Rutherford reported 284,807 unaccompanied minors aboard in 1997, including a remarkable 48,234 in July--both increases over the previous year.
Any parent considering an unaccompanied trip for a child should speak directly and in detail with an airline representative. But some general policies and ground rules are common among the 10 largest U.S. airlines. Children under age 5, for instance, are not allowed to travel without an adult.
Children ages 5 to 7 may fly on nonstop or direct domestic routes (those that involve no change of planes), so long as parents take prescribed steps, supply required information and arrange for someone to meet the child at the other end. Many airlines, including Alaska, American, Continental, TWA and USAir, say they charge no fee in those cases.
Others, including Northwest and United, charge $60 for a nonstop round trip, but details often vary. (American Airlines and TWA say they may allow jointly booked children to travel together on a single fee. United says no to that. Southwest's policy, which differs substantially from the others, is explained below.)
Some carriers, including Alaska, Northwest and TWA, also allow children aged 5 and up to fly on routes that involve change of planes. But others, including America West, American, Continental, United and US Airways, require that children be at least 8 before they can catch connecting flights (involving a change of planes) without a guardian.
It's the North American connecting-flight cases that most often carry a cost. With most carriers it's $60 per round trip; although as mentioned with Northwest and Delta, it's now $120. (Both airlines note, however, that those fees will be per family, not per child, so that a set of siblings could travel under the same $120 fee.)
For this fee, the airlines make sure that identification and destination information is attached to the child.
Children age 12 to 17, meanwhile, are treated as adults by the airlines, traveling as their families see fit. But if parents want to pay for the supervision that airlines extend to younger children, carriers often can provide it.
The exception to many of these practices is Southwest, which provides less supervision on the ground and charges no fee for unaccompanied minors. Instead, Rutherford said, the carrier relies on special boarding and retrieval procedures. For instance, unaccompanied children are always seated in the front of the plane, and parents aren't permitted to leave the airport until the child's flight does. The airline will place unaccompanied children, age 5 to 11, only on flights using a single plane--that is, no connecting flights.
The increase in kids flying on their own, as Southwest's Rutherford notes, has arisen in large part because "society has changed, and there are a lot more single-parent families." But some wonder if there's more to it than that.
"People want to jump to the conclusion that it's split parents, and certainly it is in some cases," Peach said. But she suggests that the strong economy and overall increasing mobility of society are strong factors as well.
Northwest's Peach reports that the carrier this summer will have the equivalent of 42 full-time workers earmarked for duty escorting unaccompanied minors. Among the Northwest summer routes most heavily trafficked by unaccompanied minors: the carrier's seven flights each way between LAX and Minneapolis.
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.