QMy youngest daughter, who teaches archaeology out West, flew home for a visit last summer, and I want to make sure no one else has such a bad experience.
It all began when an airline staffer was told to care for a small, timid child (maybe 31 / 2 or 4 years old) on a four-hour flight to see her father. Apparently, the staffer didn’t like this assignment, so she gave the little girl’s hand to my daughter and told her to take care of the child.
The plane was delayed, and the little girl had no identification, no note on her clothing, no small suitcase, no favorite toys, no snacks. Nothing. The child was so scared she could hardly talk.
My daughter shared the few snacks that she had packed for herself and her (very active) 5-year-old son and tried to keep the kids occupied, but they were still cranky, tired and hungry when they arrived, and my daughter was exhausted and worried about the child.
What can parents do to make a trip more fun for the child who travels alone? And how can they make flight attendants realize that a small child is a great responsibility, especially when she’s scared?
AThere are no government regulations for unaccompanied minors, but surely the $100 to $200 fee that is added to their round-trip tickets should have helped that child get better care on the plane.
Although airlines’ rules vary, none of them lets children fly alone until they’re 5. Therefore, a child who looks 3 or 4 should have prompted the check-in agent to ask for her birth certificate, which parents are told to bring if a younger child is flying alone.
Once a child is cleared to fly by herself, a parent can get a pass to walk the child to the gate and is usually told to wait there until the plane takes off. The child should also wear a tag with her name, her itinerary and the names and phone numbers of the drop-off person and the pick-up person. She should be told to wear it until she is picked up.
Here are other items any solo child needs on a plane:
●a small carry-on containing her name, contact information and itinerary (in case the tag gets lost)
●gum to chew so her ears won’t pop during takeoff and landing
●paper and crayons so she can entertain herself
●a small stuffed toy so she won’t feel lonely
●snacks so she won’t go hungry
●money to buy a treat from the cart
●a sweater to keep warm
●a pair of underpants in case she has an accident
Those extra underpants will reassure a child even if she goes to the bathroom before she gets on the plane, for children have so many potty fears.
It’s also important to prepare a child for the flight. Parents should visit the airport with their children beforehand, tell them about the funny thumps the plane will make (and why), and tell them that they may have to pee in a lavatory, which is airplane-speak for a bathroom that is really, really tiny.
Although flight attendants don’t have much time to babysit, they’ll probably be more attentive if the mother gives them a box of chocolates at the start of the trip. She should also ask who will be responsible for her child, because she’ll want to write to the attendant’s boss about how helpful she was. This will remind the attendant that airlines pay great attention to feedback and that she should be kind to frightened children if she wants to keep her job.
Passengers also can — and should — ask the attendants to help any child who is sad, and they should request food if she’s hungry. A well-run airline has some goodies set aside for these kinds of situations.
For more hints, download the When Kids Fly Alone publication from the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, at airconsumer.ost.dot.
gov. And do go online to read prospective airlines’ rules on unaccompanied minors before booking a ticket. You’ll learn a lot.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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