Children commonly visit parents and family members in other states, especially around Christmas and Thanksgiving. Sometimes the children fly to other states. However, many families just cannot afford for a parent to accompany the child on the flight.
So, what are the laws and rules regarding when children can fly alone?
Every airline has its own rules about allowing children to fly by themselves. Each airline has its own age restrictions. No major airline allows children less than five years of age to fly alone. Between the ages of five and seven years, many airlines require enrollment in a special unaccompanied minors program and prohibit travel on anything but direct flights. Children aged eight to 14 years are usually unrestricted, but must still enroll in the unaccompanied minors program for that airline. Most airlines allow children over the age of 14 years to fly without restriction or enrollment in an unaccompanied minors program.
Most airlines will require special bookings and reservations to allow a child to fly alone. A number of state and federal laws require adult supervision of any minor, meaning the airline will be required to take responsibility for any children flying with them. This is why most airlines have special unaccompanied minors programs designed in part to defray the additional personnel costs to monitor children and to ensure that they are not illegally transported across state lines or international borders. These programs usually cost about $100 to join.
To book a flight for a child to fly alone also generally requires an in-person reservation or telephone booking (i.e., online booking is usually not available). Also, the person booking the flight may not book a flight that will require the child to stay overnight in a hotel if the airline cancels the flight. The only available flights are usually morning and afternoon flights; no red-eyes and no flights that are the final departure for that destination from that airport on any given day.
An airline that accepts responsibility for a child may become liable should the minor sustain an injury, go missing, or die. Therefore, airlines may ask parents to take a number of additional precautions in the preparation of the child to travel than a normal passenger would undertake. Airlines do this to ensure both the safety and comfort of the child as well as to prevent as much risk of liability on the part of the airline as possible. Requirements may include making sure the child knows his or her full name, address, and telephone number, as well as the name and telephone number of the adult he or she is supposed to meet at the final destination. The airline will also require you to provide at least one and probably several means of contacting you should there be a delay or other incident. The airline will also require the adult that receives the child at the destination to provide a current photo identification. The name on the identification must match the name listed on any unaccompanied minor paperwork the parent or guardian filled out at the time of booking and/or check-in.
For more information about children flying alone, you can visit the website of your airline of choice. You may also find additional resources through the Federal Aviation Administration or by contacting your local airport.