When children must travel alone

Rules: Airlines, Amtrak and Greyhound impose strict rules on when and where youngsters can take trips by themselves. Here's a summary


January 02, 2000|By Betsy Wade | Betsy Wade,New York Times News Service

No matter how self-assured children seem, when they are traveling alone there is always a moment when the plane begins to empty or the train pulls out that their vulnerability shows.

In a perfect world, children would not travel alone until they were skilled, ready and pressing for the chance. But the world is not perfect, and during this holiday season tens of thousands of children have been heading back to school, or from one parent to the other, or from grandparents to parents, sometimes even from country to country.

The airlines, Amtrak and Greyhound have rules governing travel by unaccompanied minors. Amtrak and Greyhound are more stringent, forbidding unescorted travel by children under 8; the airlines' minimum age is 5. Northwest Airlines and Trans World Airlines have just raised to 15 from 12, the minimum age at which a child may fly alone without being registered as an "unaccompanied minor," avoiding payment of a fee for the airline to supervise children.

The airlines that permit children to take a trip that involves a connection put a priority on getting the child to the next flight, but missed connections do occur. Each airline has a protocol, and parents should get the details: will the child be kept at the airport, or will a local agency be called in? The child should be told what to expect.

Other rules affect seasonal travel. Parents taking children to Mexico or the Caribbean should know there are regulations involving documentation. Ignored, these can thwart a trip entirely.

Here is a look at guidelines about children's travel.

* Amtrak: Amtrak carries few unescorted children -- 5,100 in the 12 months ending June 30, 1998. It accepts children 8 and older as unescorted travelers under these restrictions:

The trip must be scheduled for daylight hours. No transfers are allowed, between trains or from a train to a bus. The station at the start of the trip must be staffed at boarding, as must the destination station at arrival. The person taking the child to the depot must complete a document giving Amtrak permission to transport the child. The agent must talk with the child to verify an understanding about who is meeting him or her. And children traveling alone pay the full adult fare.

* Greyhound: George Gravley, a spokesman for Greyhound, said that the line did not handle many children traveling alone. Its rules are similar to those of Amtrak:

No unescorted children under 8 are accepted. They must not change buses. The trip can be scheduled for no longer than five hours -- about 250 miles -- and must end in daylight. The child may board and debark only at regular Greyhound terminals or at full-time agencies, which must be open at arrival. The child sits in Row 1 or 2 and must receive the driver's approval to get off at a rest stop.

* Airlines: The Air Transport Association has no count of how many children travel unescorted yearly. In one measure, Northwest Airlines said it registered 120,000 children over age 5 as unescorted minors on its 539,000 annual departures.

Whatever the industrywide total, when Northwest and TWA changed rules in October, Northwest said a significant number of its registered children were between the ages of 12 and 15. Their earlier rules, like current ones at the other airlines, did not require registration of children above 11, although parents could do it voluntarily. Now, registration is optional for 15- to 17-year-olds.

Since 1995, Northwest has permitted all unescorted minors to take flights involving connections. The supervisory fee for a domestic nonstop flight, one way, is $30, for a connection, $60. International nonstop and connecting flights are permitted with registration, although there is no fee.

TWA does not permit connections until the child is 8. It also does not schedule unescorted children up to the age of 17, registered or not, on the last connecting flight of the day. TWA's fees are $30 for a nonstop flight, $60 for a connection, both domestic or international.

Southwest Airlines registers unescorted children ages 5 to 12, but does not charge a fee. They are not permitted to change planes or make connections.

American, Continental and Delta have rules to avoid strandings caused by canceled flights or missed connections. American will reschedule if there is such a possibility; it also will not take children on the last flights of the day out of its hub airports. Children must be 8 to take a trip with a connection. Its fee is $30 each way, whether nonstop or connection, domestic or international.

Continental will not take a child on a flight leaving between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., except on international flights, a flight from Honolulu or a domestic flight of two hours or less. Continental will also not schedule a child on the last connecting flight of the day to the destination, or start a child out if there is a possibility of a missed connection. Its fees are $30 for a nonstop and $60 for a connection each way, domestic or international.

Delta, beginning April 1, will not accept a child on the last connecting flight of the day. A child must be 8 to take a connecting flight. The domestic fees are $30 and $60; a fee is charged on international flights only if the child is connecting from a Delta domestic flight to another airline's international flight.

United and US Airways take 5- to 7-year-olds on nonstop flights only; children 8 to 11 may make connections. United's fee is $30 each way, with no extra fee if two children travel together. There is no fee for flights to Japan. US Airways charges $30 for each flight segment.

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