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Is the Airline Responsible When Children Fly Alone?


Published in Airplane Accident on April 22, 2017.

As the summer travel season approaches, parents are beginning to plan their vacations. Each year, thousands of children travel alone to visit relatives, old friends, and attend summer camps. Though most of these trips go smoothly, there is always the chance that a child will miss a connecting flight or get lost in the busy airplane shuffle. For many parents, this is a nightmare, one that may even prevent them from allowing their children to fly alone. Who is responsible for kids who fly alone, and what can parents do to prepare?

Traveling Alone: A Primer

There are no official restrictions or regulations about minor travel. Most airlines however, impose their own restrictions on what they refer to as “unaccompanied minor” travel. Common rules and regulations include:

  • Some younger children may only board nonstop or direct flights.
  • Most airlines charge an extra fee if a flight attendant is required to help a child switch planes.
  • Most airlines require a parent to submit documentation that details a child’s age, full name, medical history, and any other relevant considerations.
  • Parents or guardians may also have to sign an affidavit agreeing that an airline does not have any special responsibility throughout boarding and the flight.

Airlines are quick to point out they have no legal obligations to the unaccompanied minor before and after the flight. If a flight is cancelled or delayed, or a parent fails to pick up a minor at the end of a flight, some airlines will turn the child over to the police or the local child protective services. Airline personnel will only turn an unaccompanied minor over to a parent or designated guardian if their identification matches the form the parent filled out prior to departure.

Do Parents Have Any Legal Recourse?

Though it may seem like airlines effectively abdicate any responsibility, they are still must abide by a set of rules called “common carrier laws.” These laws apply to anyone who provides public or mass transportation – buses, trains, planes, etc. Common carriers must adhere to a greater standard of care than the general population – in fact, in the eyes of the law, they must exercise their “highest duty of care.” For unaccompanied minors, the standard of care may be even higher.

Remove the “legalese,” and this means that, despite any waivers a parent signs, an airline may be held responsible for anything that happens to a child throughout the course of a flight or with another passenger. Though you may have legal recourse, the best course of action is to thoroughly prepare your child for a flight well before takeoff.

Preparing Your Child for Flight

To help make your child’s first solo flight a success, observe the following precautions:

  • Pack a small carry on with favorite snacks, contact information, an itinerary, and any other relevant information.
  • Pack a favorite toy or comfort object, so they won’t feel scared or lonely.
  • Prepare your child by visiting the airport a couple of times before the flight. Talk about the planes, how large and safe they are, and that they might make funny noises in flight. Assure them that there is a place to go to the bathroom, even if it’s tiny.
  • Ask who will be caring for your child on a flight and introduce yourself. This helps put a face to a name and will encourage flight staff to take care of your child.
  • To help prepare yourself, download and read the U.S. Department of Transportation publication, “When Kids Fly Alone.” You’ll learn a lot, and this will hopefully ease your mind about the process to come.

Airlines must take steps to protect your child during a flight under common carrier law. As a parent, sending your child on a plane unaccompanied can be a daunting prospect. Educate yourself and your child about the process before boarding any flight.