Stephanie Hopkins of Houston, Texas, was just seven years old when she flew to Indianapolis last summer, all by herself.
"It was fun," she recalls. "An airline person walked on the plane with me, and walked off with me at the other end. I wasn't scared at all."
Stephanie's father, Tony, a Houston-based business products salesman, put her aboard a nonstop Continental Airlines flight, and her grandparents met the plane in Indianapolis. "Stephanie loved the trip," remembers Mr. Hopkins. "She's flown by herself twice since. The airline takes real good care of children traveling alone."
Stephanie is part of a trend. While no government agency tracks the numbers, airlines estimate that hundreds of thousands of children fly each year as what the industry calls "unaccompanied minors."
"It's definitely a growing phenomenon," says Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines. "Part of it has to do with changing family situations, single parent families where each parent may live in a different city. It also has to do with a growing comfort level with air travel among a broad base of the population."
Lyn Dade, supervisor of support services for United Airlines at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, reports that in a one-month period, July 1989, 387 unaccompanied minors changed planes there. In July of this year, the number was 457.
Despite the numbers, no government agency regulates the transport of unaccompanied minors. "Policies are set by the individual airlines," says David Fuscus of the Washington-based Air Transport Association.
While rules vary, most domestic airlines require that children be at least five years old to fly unaccompanied. Children between 5 and 7 may fly alone only on nonstop flights; children 8 to 11 may take connecting flights, but must be escorted between planes by airline personnel. "At no time is a child left unattended," says Donn Walker, spokesman for Trans World Airlines (TWA). "One of our employees escorts children on and off the plane, and on connecting flights, takes them to the departure gate."
Airlines charge a $20 to $30 fee, one-way, for the escort service. Delta, American, and TWA charge a fee only if a connection is involved. Most airlines will also provide the service, on request, for young people 12 to 17. Unaccompanied minors are charged the applicable adult fare.
Many airlines will not accept unaccompanied minors on the last connecting flight out of a hub airport. "Sometimes flights are delayed or canceled," says Mr. Smith. "We try to avoid a situation where a child would have to spend a night in a hotel room. If we have advance warning of possible weather problems, we may even reschedule the child's departure at the originating airport."
If changes do occur, most airlines have a policy of keeping parents apprised. "If the child does have to stay overnight," says Mr. Dade. "we make sure a United employee stays with the child, if that's what the parents want."
But airlines reserve the right to decide when and if unaccompanied minors fly. Norman and Cynthia Wilkens recently put their granddaughter, 14-year-old Hope Aswell, on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Honolulu. "Hope's an experienced traveler and had no qualms about jetting to Hawaii by herself," reports Mr. Wilkens, an Indianapolis-based advertising executive. "But a little boy, about six years old, was so frightened, he didn't want to get on the plane. The gate agents tried to reassure him, but he kept crying. Finally, they refused to board him."
Mr. Smith says that, although such instances are rare, the airline's first consideration is safety. "We're not going to create a circumstance that would be distressing to the child or to the other passengers," he says.
Veteran flyer Stephanie Hopkins has advice for such reluctant travelers. "Kids should bring along a doll or a coloring book," she says. "And they shouldn't worry. They'll be all right."
Preparing Your Child for a Flight
Prepare your child about what to expect during the flight. Tell him or her to stay on the plane until a uniformed airline employee arrives.
Check in early so you can fill out forms providing names, phone numbers, and addresses of the child, the adult dropping the child off, and the adult picking up the child at the destination. The adult picking up the child will need to show identification or the child will not be released.
Make an extra copy of the required names, phone numbers, and addresses and place it in a separate compartment of the child's carry-on luggage, in case the original gets lost.
Don't leave the airport until the plane has left the ground, not just pulled away from the gate, in case the flight is delayed or canceled.
Have a contingency plan in case a connecting flight is delayed or canceled. Be sure the child has your phone number and other pertinent numbers.