July 2, 2008

Know the Ground Rules Before Kids Fly Solo

By Gail Todd

Did you hear about the toddler who was winging it at the Vancouver airport while his family cruised along at 35,000 feet?

Apparently, the family of six - grandparents, parents and two children - started out in the Philippines and were headed for Winnipeg, Canada. But when they changed planes in Vancouver, only five boarded the aircraft. The little guy was left to roam alone.

Agents discovered him meandering between the security checkpoint and the gate. After a bit of detective work they located the family, who had no idea the boy was missing. Air Canada flew the father back to Vancouver to pick up his son and flew both of them to Winnipeg.

This is probably the youngest child to be left alone at an airport, but not the first.

Several years ago, a British grandmother walked her 10-year-old granddaughter to the gate and then left to drive back to her home in Bath. The flight canceled and we weren't able to leave until the next day. Two flight attendants took her under their wings and spent the night with the young girl, who probably has a fear of travel to this day.

Every summer, thousands of children spread their wings and fly solo to visit friends and relatives all over the world. The airlines promise to escort the youngsters to their destination for a fee. But with crowded airports, tight security and understaffing, it becomes more difficult. Here are a few things to consider:- Know the regulations. Each airline has its own set of rules for children flying alone. Most require that children between the ages of 5 to 7 fly only on nonstop flights. Between the ages of 7 to 11, they can be booked on connecting flights. You will probably need a full-fare ticket for your child. And you will pay an additional escort fee.

A parent or guardian fills out a form that includes the itinerary, contact numbers and the name of the adult meeting the child at the end of the flight. Each time there's a crew change, a flight attendant or an agent will sign the form and become responsible for the child.

- Prepare your child. Make sure he understands the rules. Put phone numbers and important information in his backpack. And tell him to find a person in uniform if he has a problem. Point out people at the airport who would be happy to help him.

Nancy Carroll, a retired flight attendant, remembers a young boy, who was traveling alone, take off before the plane did. While the crew was checking tickets, he wiggled out of the aircraft and into the concourse. An hour later, security agents found him seated on the floor behind a post. He was hiding because his mother had told him to never talk to strangers.

- Watch the plane take off. When you check in for the flight, the agent will give you a special pass so you can accompany your child to the gate. Because of mechanical or weather problems, planes have been known to return to the gate, so don't leave the boarding area until you know your youngster is in the air.

My old flying partner had a youngster on a flight who left his teddy bear at the gate. When she ran out to find it for him, the teddy bear was gone - and so were his parents.

- Pack a carry-on. Because of the lack of service and food on airlines, every child needs a well-stocked backpack. Be sure there are healthy snacks, favorite toys and a change of clothes with him.

On one bumpy flight, a youngster missed the airsick bag. Unfortunately, he didn't miss himself. The man seated next to him took pity on the little guy and gave him his sweater. But most travelers aren't that helpful.

These days, being alone at an airport is a frightening experience for an adult. For a child it could be traumatic if the parent doesn't keep his feet on the ground.

- Gail Todd, a free-lance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]@aol.com.

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