And while some airlines will hand off minors to other companies – usually the same ones to assist passengers in wheelchairs – not everybody follows that practice. For instance, Southwest Airlines only uses its own employees, according to spokesman Chris Mainz. Delta tries to have its own staff escort kids but spokesman Morgan Durrant notes that contractors might be used on peak days.
Delta has also set up specially supervised rooms in most of its major airports called the SkyZone – a mini-lounge for kids with snacks, beverages, video games and books.
Parents should book a nonstop flight whenever possible to minimize delays. If you must connect, avoid using two different airlines. Also choose an early flight – those are less prone to delays than later flights.
Before heading to the airport, make sure the minor has packed the following things:
• Paperwork. Kids should have a copy of their itineraries and birth certificates in their bags. The itinerary should include travel dates, flight numbers, departure and arrival times and the reservation’s record locator number. You should also include the parents’ or guardians’ home, work and cell phone numbers.
• Snacks and cash for food. Most airlines will give children traveling alone snacks onboard like chips or cheese-and-crackers for free. But long delays can lead to growling stomachs, so give your child some traveling money. Throw in some gum to ease popping ears.
• Entertainment. Books, small toys and electronics like DVD players and iPods are great to bring onboard, especially on longer flights. Be sure to forewarn your child that they’ll have to turn off electronic gadgets during takeoff and landing.
• A day’s worth of essentials. Pack a change of clothes in your child’s carry-on, in case a checked bag gets lost, along with a light sweater or sweat shirt for chilly planes.
• A cell phone or calling card. Kids will be more at ease – and parents will be too – when everyone stays in touch.
Get to the airport up to two hours early for drop-off. Parents have to fill out paperwork and get a gate pass to go through security. The adult picking up the child should also arrive early – by at least an hour – to fill out their share of paperwork.
Unaccompanied minors usually board first. Notifying the airline staff at the gate gives them time to find a crew member to walk the child to a seat on board. And don’t leave until the flight has taken off. Flights can be cancelled hours after they’ve taxied from the gate.
Finally, when picking up at the airport, don’t worry if you don’t see the child right away. They’re often the last ones off. A flight attendant will check the identification of the receiving adult, get a signature and you’ll be on your way.