The airport layover, not an especially relaxing experience during the best of times, can become an ordeal for harried parents traveling with their children. What can you do with your kids during the hours you're trapped at the airport?
The answer, at least at most airports, is nothing: Only a handful of U.S. and foreign airports offer anything resembling play areas or short-term child care for traveling parents and their children. For the child traveling alone, however, it's another story. Most airlines will provide escorts between connecting flights or during layovers; in some cases, supervised playrooms are available to help kids pass the time between flights.
Among the child-care options available at airports here and abroad:
Supervised child care. Lufthansa German Airlines has a large children's facility at its main hub in Frankfurt. The lounge is staffed with special attendants for children, freeing their parents to check in for flights, claim baggage, shop or just take a breather.
The Lufthansa facility has at least one staffer on duty between 5 a.m. and midnight every day. "It really works," says spokesman Joe Zucker. "All the people who have late-night layovers in Frankfurt can take advantage of this supervision for their kids." The lounge also features cots and playpens.
More than 2,700 children visit the Lufthansa center each month, and the number is growing. There is no charge for the use of the facility.
At the busy Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates, there's a popular nursery with a full-time supervisor. It is well-marked and easily accessible.
But that's not the case in Singapore. At Changi Airport, signs point to "Nursery." But the rooms are the size of small closets and are seldom used. The airport also has a lounge for children, with some staff available for supervision. But don't look for signs announcing its existence. If you want to use the lounge, you must ask for it.
Unsupervised play areas. In the United States, one of the few facilities available is Pittsburgh International Airport's "Kidsport," an imaginatively designed room located in the passenger terminal. It's been open since 1983 and has become quite a popular place. Youngsters visiting Kidsport with their parents can amuse themselves with a playhouse, teeter-totter, a play kitchen and store, books, building blocks and a built-in sliding board.
New York's LaGuardia Airport features a small-scale version of the Pittsburgh model. "Kidsport isn't a large room," says Bob Schwartz, patron services coordinator for LaGuardia, "but it is a place where parents with small children can go and let the kids go wild." The room features a small slide, a play tunnel and a hobby horse.
But these airport-funded facilities are the exceptions: In most cases, airports have turned the responsibility for child care over to the individual airlines, and it's up to the passenger to determine what's available. Among the airlines offering such services:
British Caledonian Airways has a staff at London's Gatwick Airport to assist families traveling with children, and there is a room set aside for nursing mothers. The airline also provides a "baby pack" -- a box with disposable washcloths, towels and bibs -- for parents who need it.
SAS Airlines operates an indoor children's playground at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen. The facility -- which is open to all passengers, not just those traveling on SAS -- is stocked with building blocks, a jungle gym, slides and video games.
Australian Airlines features a "kids' room" at Brisbane International Airport, where children have access to television, colored pencils, toys, soft drinks and ice cream.
Unaccompanied minors. Virtually all the airlines have provisions for children traveling alone -- unaccompanied minors, in airline parlance. By prior arrangement, agents will meet children's flights and provide supervision during layovers. In the event of canceled or delayed flights, airline personnel notify the child's relatives and make arrangements on a case-by-case basis.
In addition, some airlines have set aside special child-care centers at their hub airports for children's use between connecting flights:
TWA has supervised "special service rooms" for children flying alone at its major hub airports -- New York's JFK and St. Louis' Lambert International. These rooms feature television, books, video games and small toys.
United features "special service" centers at a number of its hub airports, including Washington's Dulles Airport, Chicago's O'Hare, Denver's Stapleton and San Francisco International. At these centers, a travel-weary minor can find a soda or something to eat, read a book or play a game. And the airline needs those centers: United handles more than 1,400 unaccompanied minors a day on peak travel days.
Eastern Airlines maintains supervised rooms for children's use during layovers at Atlanta and Miami international airports, the airline's two main connecting points. An agent escorts children from one flight to the next; there's no extra charge for this service, but unaccompanied children must fly on adult fares.
British Caledonian runs a comprehensive child-care operation out of Gatwick Airport in London. A special lounge for unaccompanied children -- last year, more than 22,000 unaccompanied children flew with the airline -- is staffed with specially trained supervisors. The lounge features TV, video games, soft drinks and snacks. If the layover period lasts more than an hour, BCal treats the kids to a full meal.
Special children's escorts, known as "aunties," are part-time employes brought in during peak childrens' travel times. There is no extra charge for this service. And, if there are flights carrying more than 10 unaccompanied children (and this happens more frequently than one might think), the airline will send one of the escorts on the flight to travel with the kids. (If an unaccompanied child is under 6 years of age, an escort is required. The airline will provide that escort, for a charge of 50 percent of the one-way fare.)
"Our mandate is to stay with the children until we hand them over at their destination to their relatives, no matter what. With bad weather or delays," says Gilpin, "the lounge and the staff really come in handy."
But sometimes, the lounge isn't enough. One December evening, weather was so bad that flight delays stretched up to 24 hours. "By 10 p.m.," reports Gilpin, "we had more than 100 children staying at hotels around the airport, each with escorts. And just when we thought we had things under control for the night, our flight from Hong Kong landed with 90 unaccompanied kids on board."
Sixty-five of the children were met by relatives. But the other kids had all missed their connecting flights.
There were no more hotel rooms to be had. So Gilpin did the next best thing. She made some phone calls, and within 20 minutes, each of the 25 kids was being driven to the home of a British Caledonian employe. Peter S. Greenberg is a free-lance writer.