Unfortunate last-minute lesson in United's rules on kids flying solo

Question: On Dec. 26, my 11-year-old great-nephew, CJ, boarded a United Airlines flight from LAX to Denver and then on to Durango, Colo. He was traveling with his 15-year-old cousin and 13-year-old sister to spend a long weekend with his grandfather, Jim Tencza, and extended family. Jim had booked the tickets weeks before, asking the agent questions to ensure that the three kids would be able to travel together. He was assured that there would be no problems with the younger two kids connecting in Denver. Just before the plane pulled back from the gate, a gate agent pulled CJ from the flight. The agent told CJ's mother, who had remained at the gate to see her children and nephew off, that CJ was too young to fly unaccompanied on a connecting flight. This situation raises several questions, including why United issued tickets for an 11-year-old if this was against policy. Great job playing Scrooge, Grinch and mean Santa, United.

Patricia Tencza



Answer: Here's another role United played after we contacted it: abashed airline.

"We should not have sold the seat for the 11-year-old without a guardian over 18," Jennifer Dohm, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, said in an email.

"We're reaching out to the customer to apologize for the error and to refund the ticket. We'll also offer a goodwill gesture to give the [customer's grandchild] another opportunity to visit him."

The goodwill gesture includes a voucher and some sort of gift from United, CJ's grandfather said by email.

On its website, United's rules for unaccompanied minors are very clear on what can and cannot happen with kids who are not yet 12: "Children 5 to 11 years of age who are not accompanied on an aircraft by a parent, legal guardian or someone who is at least 18 years of age are considered unaccompanied minors and are subject to specific restrictions.... Unaccompanied minors can only travel on nonstop flights operated by United or United Express."

As an unaccompanied minor, CJ couldn't have made the trip because it wasn't nonstop.

The topic of kids and flying is fraught with complications, including this one: Almost every airline has its own set of rules for unaccompanied minors, or UMs, as they're called.

Delta, for instance, says a child ages 5 to 14 must be part of its unaccompanied minor program "when not traveling in the same compartment with an adult who is at least 18 years old or the child's parent/legal guardian." Delta does, apparently, allow an unaccompanied minor to take a connecting flight.

American's rules say that passengers younger than age 15 must "travel with another passenger at least 16 years of age or they will be considered unaccompanied minors" who are subject to certain restrictions, including not being allowed to take the last connection of the day to the destination.

And so on. Google "children traveling alone" or "unaccompanied minors" and the name of the airline and the rules will soon have your head spinning. When you've chosen the airline your young one will be flying, it's best to study those rules.

You're probably asking why you should have to, especially when you're dealing with someone who is supposed to be a travel professional.

Short answer: You shouldn't, but where kids are concerned, it may be the only way to be sure. Knowledge may be power, but it's also part of this new era of self-protection. Otherwise, you could end up, as CJ's mom did, with a heartbroken kid who missed out on dog sledding, riding on the Durango & Silverton's Polar Express train and hanging out with cousins and other family.

It's a hard lesson for a boy to learn, but sadly, good training for anything involving travel, which continually teaches us that what you don't know can hurt you — or, worse, someone you love very much.


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