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Parents wonder how to protect children who fly alone

There are no federal regulations, so the airlines set their own rules for minors flying alone.

There are no federal regulations, so the airlines set their own rules for minors flying alone. | Sun-Times file photo

DALLAS — The arrests this month of two men on charges of groping young girls on planes has raised questions about the safety of minors who fly alone.

Experts say that before putting children on a plane alone, parents should teach them to immediately get help if another person makes them uncomfortable. Parents should also understand that flight attendants aren’t baby sitters.

There are no federal regulations, so the airlines set their own rules for minors flying alone. Most limit the youngest kids to nonstop flights to avoid the added confusion and risk of connecting to another plane. Some limit the number of solo children on any one flight.

Most U.S. airlines offer to take unaccompanied children as young as 5 for an extra fee of up to $300 per round trip. The carriers promise to help kids get on and off the plane. Flight attendants know when there is an unaccompanied minor on board, but airlines don’t add an extra attendant to watch children. Flight attendants still have to attend to other passengers and serve drinks and snacks during flights.

Parents put children on planes by themselves for many reasons including traveling to visit a divorced parent, to see grandparents, or to attend a summer camp.

“They don’t realize how little is done for unaccompanied minors for that $300,” says Summer Hull, who writes about family travel on her Mommy Points blog. “It’s not like they have a nanny on board.”

Last week, 26-year-old Chad Cameron Camp of Gresham, Oregon, was arrested and charged with abusive sexual contact after an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Portland, Oregon. According to an FBI agent’s statement, Camp sat in a middle seat next to the unaccompanied girl even though there were empty seats nearby including the aisle seat in the same row. He declined a flight attendant’s offer to move.

When a flight attendant returned later to serve snacks to passengers, she saw Camp’s hand on the girl’s crotch, according to the arrest complaint. The girl was crying.

Hull said the man’s insistence on sitting next to the girl “was a huge red flag.”

In a statement, American said it is committed to providing a safe experience for young travelers and was cooperating with law enforcement officials who are investigating the incident.

This week, Jesse Salas, 23, of Redondo Beach, California, was charged with misdemeanor assault in Seattle after allegedly groping and kissing a 16-year-old girl who had fallen asleep shortly after the Alaska Airlines plane took off from Portland. The girl was flying alone but not as a special unaccompanied-minor traveler, according to the airline.

Reports of children and teens being molested or lost when traveling alone aren’t common but get lots of news coverage.

Neither the government nor the airline industry track the number of unaccompanied minors, so figures are hard to find. A proposal to require the government to collect and make public the number of sexual assaults on airplanes died in Congress.

There are signs that parents are getting more nervous about letting their children fly alone.

British Airways, which flies to the U.S., stopped taking bookings for unaccompanied children in February. Spokeswoman Caroline Titmuss said demand for the service had fallen by two-thirds over the past decade and 21 percent in 2015 alone. She said she didn’t know the cause of the decline, but added that only 2 percent of passengers between 5 and 11 were flying alone.

Discount carrier Allegiant Air does not let children under 15 fly alone, but most U.S. airlines do. Age restrictions and fees vary. Usually an adult must accompany the minor to the departure gate and another adult must meet the minor at the arrival gate — both adults will need photo identification and passes to go beyond security checkpoints.

Experts offer tips for parents who book children for solo travel. Hull, who is contemplating a solo flight this summer for her 6½-year-old daughter to visit her grandmother, suggests that children take an aisle seat near the front of the plane to be more visible to flight attendants.

The U.S. Department of Transportation offers a guide for children flying alone.

Travel writer Amy Graff says parents need to talk to their kids about what to do when somebody touches them or does anything that makes them uncomfortable.

“You have the right to scream,” says the mother of three, whose two oldest, now 13 and 11, have flown by themselves.

Other suggestions:

  • Even with older children who are allowed to take connecting flights, book a nonstop if available.
  • Pick flights early in the day. Delays tend to build during the day, so flying in the morning will reduce the risk of the child being stranded overnight.
  • When you take your child to the gate, ask who will accompany them on and off the plane and whether another passenger will sit next to them.
  • Don’t leave the airport until the plane takes off.

Airline policies on children flying alone vary

Parents should tell the airline when making a reservation that a child will be flying alone. There are usually extra forms to fill out. More restrictions apply to international flights and some airlines prohibit unaccompanied minors on international trips or if the child’s itinerary includes another airline.

Here are highlights from policies for some of the leading U.S. airlines for children flying without an adult on domestic flights:

American Airlines: Children from 5 to 7 can travel only on nonstop or direct flights (a direct flight is one which stops but the same plane goes on to the passenger’s final destination). Children from 8 to 14 can also fly on connecting flights if they go through one of the airline’s nine larger hub operations such as Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, as was the girl who was allegedly sexually abused on a flight last week. The fee is $150 each way on top of the ticket price.

Delta Air Lines: Ages 5 to 7 can only fly on nonstop or direct flights; those 8 to 14 can make connecting flights on Delta. The airline says it scans the passenger’s barcoded wristbands during the trip and will eventually let parents track their child’s location online. The fee is $150 each way.

United Airlines: Ages 5 to 15 can travel only on nonstop flights. Fee: $150 each way.

Southwest Airlines: Ages 5 through 11 may fly only on nonstop or direct flights, and Southwest won’t take them on flights that could be diverted or cancelled because of bad weather or “other operational abnormalities.” The fee is $50 each way.

JetBlue Airways: Ages 5 through 13 can fly on nonstop flights only and will be seated in certain rows in the back of the plane. The fee is $100 each way.

Alaska Airlines: Ages 5-7 only allowed on nonstop and direct flights; those 8-12 can generally take connecting flights unless it’s the last one of the day or involves a layover of more than two hours.

Hawaiian Airlines: Ages 5-11 can fly on any flight, even connecting ones, within Hawaii or to the North American mainland. The fee is $35 for flights in Hawaii, $100 to or from the mainland.

Spirit Airlines: Ages 5-14 can fly on nonstop or flights that don’t require a change of plane or flight number. Fee: $100 each way.

Virgin America: Ages 5-11 may fly only on nonstops. The fee is $75 each way for a flight under two hours, $100 for longer U.S. trips, $125 for flights to or from Mexico.

Frontier Airlines: Ages 5-14 may travel on any nonstop flight. Fee, $100 each way.

Allegiant Air: Does not allow children under 15 to travel without a companion who is at least 15.