It’s a story that Carrie Calzaretta’s 14-year-old son, Tyler, will probably tell his kids someday.
This summer, the Calzarettas paid American Airlines an extra $300 for their son to fly round-trip as an unaccompanied minor in order to join a 10-day educational tour of Belize. When thunderstorms delayed his flight from Miami to Newark, the airline offered to re-book him for the next morning — but not to provide a hotel room for the night.
According to Calzaretta, the airline had subcontracted its escort duties to another company and the two parties couldn’t agree on what to do about Tyler.
“Each blamed the other,” says Calzaretta, a writer who lives in Brielle, N.J. “Ultimately, they threw him on a last-minute, late-night flight to avoid him having to sleep on the floor of the airport. “We had to pick him up in the wee hours and in a total panic.”
American says that Tyler Calzaretta’s flight was delayed three hours, but he flew to Newark on the same flight he’d been booked on. “American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them,” says Ross Feinstein, an airline spokesman.
Calzaretta remembers it differently. “It was horrific,” she says.
The same word could be used to describe several recent high-profile incidents involving unaccompanied minors. An Oregon man was charged with sexual assault in June after a flight attendant said she saw him abusing a 13-year-old girl flying alone from Dallas to Portland, Ore., on American Airlines. In September, JetBlue Airways reportedly confused two 5-year-olds traveling from the Dominican Republic. As a result, a boy who was supposed to go to New York City ended up in Boston, and a boy traveling to Boston was sent to New York City.
The airline industry says it is taking incidents like these seriously. “The safety and well-being of all our passengers — especially children — is and will remain our highest priority,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry group. “Airline employees rely on their extensive customer service training to ensure that children traveling alone are well cared for and have the best possible flight experience.”
Airlines charge more than ever for unsupervised minors to fly but passengers don’t necessarily get more for their money.
As a result, parents are taking matters into their own hands, says Rachel Charlupski, founder of the Miami-based Babysitting Company. Instead of paying a high unaccompanied minor fee, parents simply pay for a companion. The math often makes sense. A companion can be hired for between $25 and $35 an hour, plus expenses. Most airlines charge $150 each way for the service, but without the same level of supervision.
Charlupski, whose company provides babysitters, pet sitters and travel companions, says that demand for these personalized escort services has more than quadrupled in the past year, “due to recent security issues.”
Some airlines are trying to allay parents’ fears. Last fall, Air New Zealand began issuing “airbands” to unaccompanied minors. The wristbands are embedded with microchips and scanned, according to its literature, “at key stages of the journey,” triggering text notifications to up to five people. They cost $12 per child on domestic flights and $35 per child for each one-way international flight.
On U.S. carriers, however, the most noticeable change has been the increase in unaccompanied minor fees and restrictions. In 2014, American Airlines increased the minimum age for kids to fly unescorted from 11 to 14. Late last year, United Airlines began requiring all unaccompanied minors between the ages of 5 and 15 to use the airline’s $150-per-flight escort program. United previously required kids 11 and younger to use the program.
It’s a sharp contrast to the way unaccompanied minors used to fly. And I should know. I was an unaccompanied minor flying from Los Angeles to Vienna via New York City in 1982 with my 12-year-old brother, Jeff. Eastern Airlines didn’t charge us extra for being unaccompanied minors (my parents would have complained loudly if they had) and neither of us were tagged with wristbands.
Our stopover in New York became a layover when we missed the connection to our transatlantic flight. A kind airline agent arranged for an overnight hotel stay and made sure we boarded the flight for Vienna the next day. Like Tyler, I’ll never forget that experience. Unlike Tyler, the experience made me a fan of the airline until it stopped flying. (And yes, my kids have heard the story a time or two.)
Traveling as an unaccompanied minor is different, and in some ways perhaps more difficult, today. As the father of three children young enough to travel as unaccompanied minors, I refuse to put them on a plane alone. Why pay an extra $900, only to risk having them get lost or harassed by another passenger? If they had to fly alone, I would consider hiring a paid companion for them.
So what to do? Guide your children through the process, particularly if they never have been on an airplane.
Laura Einsetler, a commercial airline pilot, says parents should “absolutely insist” on walking their child to the gate and waiting until the flight departs. Airlines issue gate passes for people accompanying minors to their gates. “Always stay until you know the flight has departed,” she adds. “Situations arise with weather or mechanical problems, and you do not want your child involved in any lengthy delay without you.”
“Get to the gate at least an hour before the flight is scheduled to leave,” advises Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant for American Airlines. “This will allow time for the unaccompanied minor to board first, meet the flight crew and feel comfortable about the process. Last-minute running through security and the airport and boarding last causes unnecessary stress for children who already are intimidated.”
Of course, selecting the right airline can also help — if you have a choice. David Forgues, a university administrator from Brea, Calif., recently sent his 10-year-old daughter, Anwei, from Reno, Nev., to Orange County, Calif., says she had a “very smooth” experience and Alaska Airlines employees were friendly, attentive and explained the process clearly. “The flight attendants always made sure I was okay and comfortable,” she told me in an email.
Best of all, Alaska charged only $25 for the service — $125 less than the going rate.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.