The Young and the Stranded
Complications Unnerve Parents of Kids Flying Alone

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

The odyssey of Jordan Bell and Dominic Turner last week was typical of the travails afflicting thousands of air travelers in this turbulent summer travel season: a two-hour tarmac delay, a missed connection to get home to Washington, an unexpected overnight stay in Chicago, a flight scrubbed by mechanical problems, a mad dash to make another flight and bags that didn't turn up for two days.

Except Jordan, 13, and Dominic, 14, were no ordinary passengers. They were flying alone with nervous parents hundreds of miles away.

"I was freaking out," said Jordan's mother, Josephine Robinson, who felt helpless as she tried to solve her son's travel troubles. "I had followed all the news about the flight delays and summer travel problems. But you have blind faith that it won't be your flight, it won't be your kid's flight."

Thousands of children fly unaccompanied each day on U.S. airlines -- an estimated 650,000 fly alone on United, American and Southwest airlines annually, with the heaviest loads occurring in the summer and over the holidays, the carriers say. This summer travel season, the youths are being thrown into the very adult mix of delays, cancellations and fewer airline employees help them. Already, delays are at high levels, with more than 30 percent of flights arriving late or being canceled in June, up from 25 percent last year, according to the flight-tracking service Flightstats.com.

More than 20,000 flights were canceled last month, according to the tracking service, up from 8,710 in June 2006. The first two weeks of July provided only slight relief: 26 percent were late or canceled. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics says the first five months of the year, the most recent period for which data are available, were the worst in terms of delays since the organization began tracking the numbers in 1995.

The delays and cancellations affect all travelers, but parents of children flying alone say they feel extra strain.

"If 10 was the most stressful I could have felt, I was a 20," said Maria Buell, a restaurant owner in Florida who sent her kids on a trip to visit their grandparents in New York last month on a US Airways flight. The children faced delays at their connecting flight, and didn't arrive at their destination until 3:30 a.m., Buell said.

"With your children there and you are not, you are talking on the phone, dealing with people who don't even care," said Buell, the mother of a girl 16 and boy 14. "My kids were fine. They muddled through."

Despite the frustrations, most children make it safely through the system without major hassles. Airlines assign employees to escort children and bring them to secure rooms where they can wait for connections. That service usually costs a fee. Children under 5 are generally not permitted to fly without an adult, and most carriers will not allow children to take the last flight of the day, which reduces the chance of youths getting stuck at airports overnight. Since 2002, the Department of Transportation reported 341 complaints from consumers about children flying alone.

For their part, some parents carefully plan their children's trips to ensure that canceled flights and lengthy delays are more manageable. Most will only send their children on direct flights. Others make sure that connections are made in cities where they have friends or relatives.

The parents of Jordan and Dominic didn't think to schedule their ATA Airlines flights through cities where they have friends. But they got lucky when the boys were stranded in Chicago on July 9 after they missed their Washington-bound connection from Dallas because of delays. They worked the phones, and Jordan's stepfather, Russell Robinson, eventually got in touch with a college friend who picked up the boys and took them in for the night.

Robinson concedes that the parents didn't pay the $60 fee or fill out paperwork to obtain airline escorts. But he thinks the airline should have done more to help the boys because he said that he and Dominic's father told the carrier's employees on the phone and in person that the boys were flying alone.

ATA says it did everything it could to help the family.

"We were never told they were minors," said Ellis Fawcett, the airline's corporate conflict resolution manager. "There was no way of us knowing or treating them as minors."

But the protections don't prevent all foul-ups.

Last month, Blake Gammell was waiting at the gate at the Pensacola, Fla., airport to pick up his 11-year-old nephew after a Northwest Airlines flight. A gate worker had him sign the paperwork to take custody of the boy after the flight arrived. But when Gammell looked down at the child in front of him, he was puzzled. Instead of his nephew, he was staring at a 9-year-old girl. The airline had mixed up the children and put them on the wrong flights.

"I just figured my nephew hadn't gotten off the plane yet," said Gammell, who was making his second trip to the airport that day after his nephew's first flight had been delayed by four hours. "She looked distressed. She seemed like she really wanted to be with her mom."

Gammell and other family members eventually tracked down his nephew, Alex Goodale, at the airport in Memphis, where he was making a connection from Columbus, Ohio, to Pensacola. They said the boy had been escorted onto the wrong plane. A talkative child, Alex asked the man seated next to him where he was headed, family members said. When the passenger said he was returning home to Oklahoma City, Alex realized he was on the wrong plane, signaled for help and got off before takeoff. The incident was first reported by the Columbus Dispatch.

Northwest Airlines issued a statement apologizing for the June 8 mishap. Airline officials said the girl was returned to her family later that day. Northwest said it was taking steps to prevent future mistakes.

"Northwest Airlines takes the transportation of unaccompanied minors very seriously and has procedures in place to ensure that incidents like this do not occur," the airline said. "On this day, the system failed in these two cases."

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