``There are two types of air travel - first class, and traveling with children,'' says American Airlines's Steven McGregor with a laugh, repeating an old industry joke. But for parents who have to send their children unaccompanied on a flight, the matter can be quite serious. Many airlines report an increase in the number of minors traveling alone, especially during the summer months when children are on vacation. Trans World Airlines says that it handles between 300 and 500 unaccompanied minors a day during the peak summer season.
One of the most frequently cited reasons for this is the growing divorce rate in the United States. Airlines are finding that more of the children they serve come from broken homes and therefore need to travel between parents for holidays or summer vacations, says Joe Hopkins at United Airlines.
Carriers have long been attentive to the unique problems presented by unaccompanied minors, says Mr. McGregor. To keep complications to a minimum, most airlines enforce age restrictions on when a child can fly alone. Generally, a child five years of age or younger is not accepted by an airline for a solo flight. Children from five to seven years old can travel on a direct or nonstop flight. And children 8 and above are accepted for a connecting flight.
The main problem with children traveling alone occurs at the end of the line, says Jean Smith of Delta Air Lines. Regulations state that the parent must specify ahead of time who is to meet the child at the airport.
But Ms. Smith says that sometimes, at the last minute, the designated person is unable to go and must ask someone else to fill in. Often the child does not recognize the other person and becomes upset. ``That first instance of panic is really what we have to watch out for,'' says Smith. ``We need to ask, `What is the child saying to us?'''
This is one reason airlines create a computer file for every unaccompanied minor. It contains specific information about the child's flight arrangements, including the name of the person who is to meet him at his final destination. Each employee who comes into contact with the child has access to this record.
United Airlines takes the added precaution of not placing a child on the last flight to a certain destination. ``We want to avoid the situation where a child has to be put up overnight should they miss a connecting flight,'' says Mr. Hopkins.
Above all, airlines emphasize that a child traveling alone is never left unattended. Staff members are assigned to each child from the moment he boards the airplane until he is met at his final destination. On the plane, a flight attendant watches the child, and in the airport either a ticket agent or a ``ground'' agent is responsible for him or her.
United Airlines hires college students during the summer to help with the sudden influx of young passengers. The students, who are responsible for supervising the safe passage of the children, wear red blazers to make them more visible.
Most important for the parents, says McGregor, is to ``allay any fears the child may have about traveling by themselves. Tell them that they will never be unaccompanied at any time.'' He also suggests packing puzzles and books in carry-on luggage to keep the child occupied.
Hopkins suggests that parents make seat reservations early, and try to get a window seat for the child traveling alone. Board early, he says, so that the child can be introduced to a flight attendant. This way the child more readily adapts to the airplane's environment.