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Opinion: The Unaccompanied Minor Program Needs Reform
If you go the website of virtually any U.S.-based airline and try to buy a seat for anyone under the age of 15, you’re met with a message that goes a little like this: “Tickets for travelers under the age of 15 cannot be booked online. To book a flight for an unaccompanied minor, please call reservations.”
After making that phone call, you’ll be able to book your flight, but that flight will come with some major restrictions. On American and Delta, that means only direct flights until the age of 8. On United, unaccompanied minors can never connect, leaving the vast majority stuck flying either to or from a United hub, with few point-to-point options beyond that.
But across U.S. legacy carriers, every unaccompanied minor ticket comes with one huge drawback: a difficult-to-miss $150 fee. That fee, which for direct flights covers little more than attention to and from the plane, is most noticed on airlines that allow connections, essentially everyone except United in the U.S.
Southwest Airlines has some lenient aspects, letting children 12 and above travel solo and only charging $50 one-way for its unaccompanied minor services. The Dallas-based airline does require its minor passengers only take non-stop or connecting flights without a plane-change. However, as Southwest has a large point-to-point network, the effect is mitigating than if flying on a majority hub-and-spoke airline as United.
A year or so ago, I even did the whole thing myself. Much to my dismay, my family, in order to get me back in from a family vacation in time for a school commitment, had to pay the $150 for what essentially amounted to a free bag of pretzels, priority boarding, and a walk from the gate to the plane and back with a flight attendant.
But that’s not even the part I take issue with. Rather, its the constraints airlines have placed on who can and cannot fly as an unaccompanied minor. For all three of the major U.S. airlines, it is mandatory that flyers up to the age of 14 travel as listed unaccompanied minors. Between the ages of 15 and 17, the services are optional. Beyond that age, no options are available for extra assistance.
To begin, let me start at the upper end of the age group. Even as flying becomes more accessible and more commonplace than ever before, a large portion of the population of our country has never stepped aboard an airplane. For those who are taking to the skies for the first time, wouldn’t it make sense to give them the option to have someone help them through checking a bag, security, and helping them get onboard the flight?
Airlines across the world offer services for travelers with sight and hearing disabilities, women who are traveling while pregnant or, simply, for various other medical difficulties. But for most, the service to assist first-time flyers in the same way an unaccompanied minor may be looked after and guided is not available.
Flying is also one of those experience that is stressful and worry-filled the first time around. Which line do I stand in? What can and can’t go in my carry-on or my checked bag? Where do I even start when I get past the TSA? Some major airports, while architectural marvels, are still daunting to the first-time or even experienced user.
Not everyone is going to experience the same stress, but for those who do, is there a reason not to offer everyone, whether they’re age 18 or 88, the opportunity to purchase a little peace of mind when it comes to navigating the airport? The service does not have to be free, as the unaccompanied minor program is not, but the service would inject a bit of humanity into the traveling process for those who need it most.
If airlines are going to continue to offer the unaccompanied minor service for the $150 fee, they should do so without the arbitrary cutoffs. Maybe it even deserves a name change to include travelers of all ages, but mandatory for those under a certain age as the unaccompanied minor program does now.
The unaccompanied minor program is not without its merits. Where the program really helps is in the event of a delay or cancellation, as a younger or first-time traveler would not necessarily know what to do or deal with busy airport staff. At least when in the program, the airline knows your situation and will actively work on your behalf to resolve any issue that arises. When you pay the fee, you’re the responsibility of the airline, which is comforting to some.
Of course, nobody wants a 13-year-old wandering aimlessly around Chicago O’Hare or LAX, but, there are plenty of 13-year-olds who are more experienced travelers than some 45-year-olds. Placing unnecessary restrictions on a group of travelers because of their age gives the impression that some airlines just want the ancillary fee revenue rather than care about the passenger, especially since most airlines just raised the cutoff from 14 to 15.
Let’s give our youth some leeway and lower the cutoff age between minor and adult, while still giving them the option if they need it. Airline travel today is largely based on technology, especially mobile apps, which young kids are becoming more adept at every year. Parents know their children well enough to determine whether they need the service and the travelers themselves, no doubt, know their capabilities as well.
Maybe the program needs a facelift, something more welcoming to those who are simply worried about the experience of getting from the curb to their seat. Because, as Delta says on their website, “Travel should be worry-free,” and they couldn’t be more right.
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