Flying Solo

Last summer, I put my 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son on a cross-country flight and chewed my nails for an hour waiting for it to take off. Five minutes after take-off, my cell phone rang and my stomach clamped into a tight knot. It was my son, who had resourcefully used my secretly memorized calling card number to phone me from his seat. No, nothing was wrong. He'd just forgotten to tape his favorite TV show, Pokémon. I wasn't thrilled about the phone bill, but was pleased to find out that later in the day this same resourcefulness helped when a gate agent nearly put him and his sister on the wrong connecting flight.

Every year, 7 million children are sent off alone on airplanes to visit friends and relatives, flying "unaccompanied minor" status. There is plenty that parents can do to maximize the chances of a safe and happy journey.

Pack lots of snacks and things to do

"I can't believe how many people put their kids on a plane with nothing to do for five hours," says flight attendant Judy Sexton. "We want the kids to enjoy their trip, but we just don't have time to entertain them." Sexton notes that passengers sitting near kids traveling alone will often interact with them, but that parents shouldn't count on this.

Flight attendant Linda Luyk advises that books and games that can be played solo or with a new-found friend are best, but toys with small parts that might get lost should be left at home.

Prepare your child for what to expect

Although airline personnel are responsible for putting your child on the correct flight, a child who has practiced finding gates and reading monitors with mom and dad will be better equipped to notice and correct an airline mistake. If you aren't too familiar with air travel, extensive research will help you feel more comfortable.

Bob and Kathy Carlson had no idea what challenges their 15-year-old daughter would face when she traveled from Duluth, Minnesota to a small town in Massachusetts for music camp. It turned out that changing airlines, as well as planes, in LaGuardia Airport meant retrieving her 60-pound trunk from the baggage carousel, taking a bus to a different terminal, and toting the trunk to the check-in point for the final leg of her journey. Because the girl had not been coached on what help was available (she was too old for "unaccompanied minor" status), she managed the transfer without assistance. Although today she proudly tells the story, the Carlsons wish that they had anticipated the process and explained how to get help from a skycap.

Luyk recommends that parents also clearly instruct their children on what to do if a seatmate makes them uncomfortable: They should press the call light or leave their seat to find a flight attendant. If there are no willing volunteers, says Luyk, flight attendants have the authority to require passengers to switch seats. And airline staff occasionally step in to rearrange seating when they notice a troublesome situation, such as an intoxicated passenger sitting next to a child.

Have a backup plan

Most unaccompanied minor horror stories center around young children forced to spend the night in a hotel room with airline personnel. Airlines are as uncomfortable with this situation as parents, which is why they encourage parents to book direct flights whenever possible and avoid the last connecting flight of the day when a change is required. Sexton takes the recommendation one step further: "Parents should book their child on the very first flight of the day. Bad weather and mechanical problems tend to happen midday. The earlier in the day a child is scheduled to connect, the more likely that things will happen as planned."

Another safeguard is to have your child change planes in a city where a friend or relative lives, so that she could stay with someone you trust in the event of a snafu. But be sure to check with the airline ahead of time to find out how to set up such a situation. You might need to add the other adult to the "unaccompanied minor" paperwork so the airline has the authority to release the child to them.

Olivia Taylor-Young found a creative solution when her 11-year-old son was nearly stranded. He was scheduled to travel cross-country to his father's home in Hartford, Conn., for a family wedding the next day. But bad weather delayed the first leg of his journey, causing him to miss the last connecting flight to Hartford. At his parents' urging, the airline arranged to put him on another carrier's flight to Boston (100 miles from Hartford), arriving close to midnight-but without his luggage. He attended the wedding wearing his ice-cream stained traveling clothes, complete with a sign around his neck that read, "Please excuse my outfit. The airlines lost my luggage!"

Every airline offers guidelines and prescribes rules to make sure that your "unaccompanied minor" child is met safe and sound at the end of the journey, so be sure to find out what those are before scheduling the trip. However, your child's awareness and resourcefulness are the ultimate fail-safe, so prepare him well. Who knows-- maybe someday he will save you from boarding the wrong flight!