Kids on planes. What could possibly go wrong?


It’s a story that Carrie Calzaretta’s 14-year-old son, Tyler, will probably tell his kids someday.

This summer, the Calzarettas paid American Airlines an extra $300 for their son to fly round-trip as an unaccompanied minor in order to join a 10-day educational tour of Belize. When thunderstorms delayed his flight from Miami to Newark, the airline offered to re-book him for the next morning — but not to provide a hotel room for the night.

According to Calzaretta, the airline had subcontracted its escort duties to another company and the two parties couldn’t agree on what to do about Tyler.

“Each blamed the other,” says Calzaretta, a writer who lives in Brielle, N.J. “Ultimately, they threw him on a last-minute, late-night flight to avoid him having to sleep on the floor of the airport. “We had to pick him up in the wee hours and in a total panic.”

American says that Tyler Calzaretta’s flight was delayed three hours, but he flew to Newark on the same flight he’d been booked on. “American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them,” says Ross Feinstein, an airline spokesman.

Calzaretta remembers it differently. “It was horrific,” she says.

The same word could be used to describe several recent high-profile incidents involving unaccompanied minors. An Oregon man was charged with sexual assault in June after a flight attendant said she saw him abusing a 13-year-old girl flying alone from Dallas to Portland, Ore., on American Airlines. In September, JetBlue Airways reportedly confused two 5-year-olds traveling from the Dominican Republic. As a result, a boy who was supposed to go to New York City ended up in Boston, and a boy traveling to Boston was sent to New York City.

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The airline industry says it is taking incidents like these seriously. “The safety and well-being of all our passengers — especially children — is and will remain our highest priority,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry group. “Airline employees rely on their extensive customer service training to ensure that children traveling alone are well cared for and have the best possible flight experience.”

Airlines charge more than ever for unsupervised minors to fly but passengers don’t necessarily get more for their money.

As a result, parents are taking matters into their own hands, says Rachel Charlupski, founder of the Miami-based Babysitting Company. Instead of paying a high unaccompanied minor fee, parents simply pay for a companion. The math often makes sense. A companion can be hired for between $25 and $35 an hour, plus expenses. Most airlines charge $150 each way for the service, but without the same level of supervision.

Charlupski, whose company provides babysitters, pet sitters and travel companions, says that demand for these personalized escort services has more than quadrupled in the past year, “due to recent security issues.”

Some airlines are trying to allay parents’ fears. Last fall, Air New Zealand began issuing “airbands” to unaccompanied minors. The wristbands are embedded with microchips and scanned, according to its literature, “at key stages of the journey,” triggering text notifications to up to five people. They cost $12 per child on domestic flights and $35 per child for each one-way international flight.


On U.S. carriers, however, the most noticeable change has been the increase in unaccompanied minor fees and restrictions. In 2014, American Airlines increased the minimum age for kids to fly unescorted from 11 to 14. Late last year, United Airlines began requiring all unaccompanied minors between the ages of 5 and 15 to use the airline’s $150-per-flight escort program. United previously required kids 11 and younger to use the program.

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It’s a sharp contrast to the way unaccompanied minors used to fly. And I should know. I was an unaccompanied minor flying from Los Angeles to Vienna via New York City in 1982 with my 12-year-old brother, Jeff. Eastern Airlines didn’t charge us extra for being unaccompanied minors (my parents would have complained loudly if they had) and neither of us were tagged with wristbands.

Our stopover in New York became a layover when we missed the connection to our transatlantic flight. A kind airline agent arranged for an overnight hotel stay and made sure we boarded the flight for Vienna the next day. Like Tyler, I’ll never forget that experience. Unlike Tyler, the experience made me a fan of the airline until it stopped flying. (And yes, my kids have heard the story a time or two.)

Traveling as an unaccompanied minor is different, and in some ways perhaps more difficult, today. As the father of three children young enough to travel as unaccompanied minors, I refuse to put them on a plane alone. Why pay an extra $900, only to risk having them get lost or harassed by another passenger? If they had to fly alone, I would consider hiring a paid companion for them.

So what to do? Guide your children through the process, particularly if they never have been on an airplane.

Laura Einsetler, a commercial airline pilot, says parents should “absolutely insist” on walking their child to the gate and waiting until the flight departs. Airlines issue gate passes for people accompanying minors to their gates. “Always stay until you know the flight has departed,” she adds. “Situations arise with weather or mechanical problems, and you do not want your child involved in any lengthy delay without you.”

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“Get to the gate at least an hour before the flight is scheduled to leave,” advises Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant for American Airlines. “This will allow time for the unaccompanied minor to board first, meet the flight crew and feel comfortable about the process. Last-minute running through security and the airport and boarding last causes unnecessary stress for children who already are intimidated.”

Of course, selecting the right airline can also help — if you have a choice. David Forgues, a university administrator from Brea, Calif., recently sent his 10-year-old daughter, Anwei, from Reno, Nev., to Orange County, Calif., says she had a “very smooth” experience and Alaska Airlines employees were friendly, attentive and explained the process clearly. “The flight attendants always made sure I was okay and comfortable,” she told me in an email.

Best of all, Alaska charged only $25 for the service — $125 less than the going rate.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Hanope

    American Airlines has awful customer service, I would never use them for an unaccompanied minor.

    I find it interesting that United has unaccompanied minor only up to 15. I always presumed one was a minor until 18.

    I also find it interesting that the only reason a flight attendant noticed a man abusing a 13 year old was because she was an unaccompanied minor. Sometimes parents are forced to sit away from their kids on planes if seats get changed and the parents pull the short straw. I would normally think that it would be ok for a 13 year old to sit apart from their parents. My 11 year old had to on a flight last year, as the airplane “rearrangement” only allowed for 2 of our family of 4 to sit together, so we chose to have me sit with our 8 year old. The 11 year old was only a couple rows away (no one ever volunteers to change to a middle seat), but obviously I wouldn’t be able to see what was happening right next to her. Apparently even 13 isn’t ‘safe.’ Airlines couldn’t give a rats ass if a family is separated from each other if they are not one of the special snowflake “elite” people who pay large sums for the privilege of always being able to sit together no matter what.

    We had a couple years where our kids stayed with the grandparents all summer. We made arrangements for my husband’s sister to come visit us for 2 weeks, then fly home with our kids, and at the end of summer, his parents flew back with our kids and stayed for another 2 weeks. This solved the unaccompanied minor’s problem, plus we all got extra time with family.

    What I wonder about the ‘babysitting’ program is if the hiring family has to pay for the plane ticket for the babysitter, and if so, do you buy round trip or one way (which could have its own problems), and do you get a different babysitter for the way back, or what does the babysitter do once they reach the initial destination? And of course, I presume the hiring of a flight babysitter has its own issues, like background check, references and is the babysitting company insured?

  • LonnieC

    “special snowflake ‘elite’ people”???

  • PsyGuy

    I don’t give a rats but if you don’t get to sit next to your spawn. Want to sit together pay for advanced seat choices, like everyone else has the opportunity too. Parent’s aren’t a special class of people just because they reproduced.

  • PsyGuy

    Sounds like it’s just another junk fee.

  • BubbaJoe123

    14 year olds now need to fly as an UM? When I was younger, once you hit 13, you were a passenger, just like any other.

    It amazes me that, even though kids today are unquestionably safer than they’ve ever been, there’s this perception that the world has gotten more dangerous.

  • Rebecca

    My absolute pet peeve is people that think the world owes them something because they have children. And I have 2 toddlers. We fly relatively often. They always have their own seat and if we’re not flying Southwest, which we usually do, we have assigned seats I would definitely not trade to someone that didn’t pay for them.

  • MarkKelling

    “It was horrific” Really? I would suggest you check the definition of “horrific”. “We had to pick him up in the wee hours and in a total panic.” Why were YOU panicking? The airline got your unaccompanied minor where he was supposed to be about 3 hours late. How is this “horrific” and why was there “panic”? I’m sure the child, if he is fairly normal, would have been completely mellow about the whole thing as long as his smart phone and/or game playing device stayed charged enough to use.

    The other story about the child being abused on a flight truly is horrific.

  • C Schwartz

    Wow special snowflake elite who pay more for seats? Unfortunately paid prefered seating reservations are part of the airline business model now. People who pay to sit together are not the special snowflakes; it is the people who do not pay and expect to get the same treatment as those who that qualify as special snowflakes.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Particularly since the “child” in the first case was 14 years old. Hardly a toddler.

  • Hanope

    I have in the past paid for reserved seats and still had the airline re-arrange seats at the last minute due to an airplane change or other issue and had my paid for seats separated. Complain? Sure. I’ll get my fees reimbursed. But that doesn’t solve the problem of wanting to sit together in the first place. I find out that those with “elite” status (i.e. frequent flyers with certain miles status), get their seat selections first, and others get the leftovers.

  • Hanope

    As I said above, I have paid for seats together and still had the airline separate us due to “some reason why they changed planes.”

  • LeeAnneClark

    I’m with you. There’s an awful lot of hyperbole in this story. I honestly can’t even see what the problem was. The kid never got lost, or abused, or treated badly. If I’m reading this story right, it sounds as if all that really happened was that his flight was delayed by :::gasp::: three whole hours.

    Wow. If that’s their idea of “horrific”, they live a truly sheltered existence. And telling this story to his own kids? If I told my kids stories of every time my flight was delayed by 3 hours, they’d be sitting there for hours…and bored to tears.

  • MarkKelling

    Now if the child really had been left to sleep in the airport terminal overnight without meal vouchers or anything, I might feel more sympathetic. But even that is not “horrific” just mildly annoying.

  • MarkKelling

    Here’s a solution — don’t let your child travel alone.

    Get on the plane with the kid. When the plane lands, take the child to the place he/she will be staying. Inconvenient? Maybe. But who ever said having children to take care of was supposed to be convenient.

    I never flew anywhere when I was a child. That was during the regulated era and it simply costs too much. However, I was often put on a Greyhound and sent to visit my aunts and uncles (always a trip that completed before the sun went down and none required changing buses although the bus made multiple stops along the way) starting when I was about 12. I survived. I never got out at the wrong stop. No one ever bothered me. Mom made sure I had enough money in my pocket to make a phone call and buy a meal if the bus broke down.

  • greg watson

    How did family sitting together relate to Unaccompanied Minor travel ?

  • MarkKelling

    Don’t give the airlines any ideas on how to charge us for more! You are not sitting next to your younger than 14 child on your flight so that makes the child an unaccompanied minor — pay the fee! :-)

  • Dutchess

    Because when you’re asking for refunds, free miles, and trying to get freebies from the airline you need to make your otherwise mundane and common travel story sound as harrowing as possible!

  • Bill___A

    I am watching the news about Aleppo whilst reading this story about how it was “horrific” to have their child on a three hour delay and having to pick him up in the middle of the night.

    I agree with your comments. Yes, the child being abused is horrific. The kid on a late flight…not. As to hotel, why don’t these escort agencies and airlines have it worked out in advance about hotel room?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Well…I’d be pretty ticked off if my 14-year-old was left to sleep overnight in an airport. And I would consider that at least approaching “horrific”, more than just mildly annoying. But that’s not what happened here, so the hyperbole is kind of befuddling.

  • Extramail

    I used to take a 4 hour train trip to visit my cousins in the summer. Some of my best memories are being completely free to go wherever I wanted on the train.

    Thankfully, nothing bad happened to the kid. It would have been a “horrific” story had it ended differently than being three hours late.

  • Maxwell Smart

    the real question is why are ANY parents dumping their kids onto an airline (it’s not like dumping them in childcare-otherwise known as child abuse)? Maybe should be no unaccompanied under 18 years.

  • MarkKelling

    Airlines used to have the hotel thing all worked out for late cancellations and blizzards and whatever that kept passengers from making their flights. But no more. They might have a few set aside for their top tier frequent flyers, but asking for a hotel voucher now is met with a gaze like you had just switched to an ancient Egyptian language when you made that request.

  • greg watson

    That makes no sense at all, if I am with my child, then they are not unaccompanied, but you may have a bee in your bonnet, that hasn’t buzzed me yet ?

  • El Dorado Hills

    My grandson began traveling as an unaccompanied minor when he was 9 but with certain rules. We use SWA and they are great. The flight must be non-stop, no plane changes. We are given a pass to get through security and stay with him until he actually goes down the ramp to the plane. His mother, on the other end, meet him at the door from the ramp. Until he was 12 he word an info tag around his neck and a staff member too him to his seat and brought him off the plane. I can’t imagine putting him on a flight that plane changes – or even stops. I don’t object to a reasonable charge for having an airline crew member take charge of my grandson while he is in their custody. This procedure prevents most of the problems outlined below.

  • PsyGuy

    I believe MarkKelling’s point is that the airline can define arbitrarily at anytime what constitutes an unaccompanied minor. They can say you aren’t sitting with your minor child, so we are charging your credit card the unaccompanied minor fee, because they can, it’s their rules. Just as easily as they can change the age of which one is considered an unaccompanied minor.

  • PsyGuy

    Better solution don’t have kids.

  • PsyGuy

    This is why we have a whole society of entitled millennials who don’t know how to do anything that doesn’t involve social media.

  • PsyGuy

    Because it’s American, and the child missed the connection and it’s American.

  • PsyGuy

    They also used to have smoking on the flight too, and people dressed up to fly, and skirts on stew’s were shorter, and they could fire you if you gained too much weight, and captains had breakfast consisting of a triple scotch with a wash of orange juice.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, it could have involved something to do with Liam Neeson, seriously the guy has his kid taken three times, at what point is it just bad parenting?

  • PsyGuy

    Should have added Liam Neeson to the story.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s what parents do though is hyperbole.

  • PsyGuy

    That wouldn’t have happened though, the kid would have called mom, and mom would have called the airline and they would have got the kid a happy meal and a cot/sleeping bag at the very least.

  • PsyGuy

    Why use the armband, just implant an Rfid into the child.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s because the plane changed, if you want the seat you reserved, that plane will not be flying, but you’d be welcome to sit in it if it kept your kids off of my flight. When I get changed to another plane I have to take what the airline gives me, which may not be my reserved in advance seat, why should your “family” get special consideration?

  • PsyGuy

    This is because elite fliers contribute more to the airline then PAX who believe that having kids and wanting to sit with them is somehow more important.

  • Hanope

    Guess this is why trump won, only rich people matter.

  • Hanope

    Guess you don’t mind sitting next to crying kids by yourself

  • Fishplate

    ” The math often makes sense.”

    But in this case, not so much. Consider a three-hour flight. The time needed to take that flight is five hours. Unaccompanied fee is $150, or $30 per hour. Contrast that with a “companion” fee of $25 to $35 per hour times 10 hours, because the companion has to get back to the origin. Plus the cost of the plane tickets for the companion.

    I must be missing something…am I paying some stranger that’s already on the plane?

  • MarkKelling

    It was a joke. Never mind.

  • MarkKelling

    Yep, things changed and continue to do so. Not all for the better.

  • PsyGuy

    No, that’s what noise canceling headphones are for.

  • PsyGuy

    No, only the better people matter.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I’m a parent. I don’t do hyperbole. Look, sometimes you’re funny…but please stop branding all parents with the same paintbrush. It’s wrong, and it’s rude.

  • Bill___A

    I mean some way to get the unaccompanied minor a hotel room even if the parents pay for it.

  • MarieTD

    It could be because they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Maybe they do it because the option is to send child alone or to stay behind for another compelling reason. You only need to ask yourself if there was any situation on where this “could be” true.

  • Bill___A

    I like train rides, but the plane is the service that’s available where I live. I remember taking the train as a child. It was nice.

  • Bill___A

    I think they airlines should have an unaccompanied minors website where, if there is a hotel room required, the airline could generate an invoice sent via email with a link where the parent could pay for it and the airline’s unaccompanied minors service could handle all the hotel arrangements.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t think that would “fly” if you are on the same plane. They can, sort of, do what they want, but I think there are limits.

  • joycexyz

    That’s really nasty. I’m guessing you don’t get much opportunity to reproduce.

  • greg watson

    Now, I get it, & here I thought you were in a state of panic !

  • JewelEyed

    Okay, I was with you until you decided to dismiss an entire generation that hasn’t gotten a chance to do much at all yet as entitled.

  • JewelEyed

    I find it rather remarkable that two families put unaccompanied 5 year olds on airplanes at the same time…

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Is there a story behind all of your vitriol on this post (against parents, millenials, and those who are not “better people”, among others)? I, hopefully pleasantly, disagree with you because I think that any reasonable seat selection model should allow families with young children to sit together.

  • PsyGuy

    I have few bad travel experiences, but the ones I have always involve the entitlement of parents. I don’t have an issue with the kids, most of them will stare at their iPad when not sleeping. What baffles me is these children are well behaved with strangers but think nothing of yelling and screaming at their own parents like mom and dad are “the help”. Mom can try for an hour to quit a child and when the FA shows up the child goes quite.

    Our issue is what defines “reasonable”, I imagine we have very different definitions. When I pay for a seat because it’s nicer or has some other benefit, it’s because i want and value that seat. I’m not going to change or switch my seat with some entitled parent so they can sit next to their child. I rarely see parents wanting to switch their seat for some dreaded middle row seat to sit next to their child, they always ask the aisle or window seated PAX to switch.

  • PsyGuy

    What do you mean hasn’t gotten a chance? We define “chance” differently. Millennials expect to start at the top or at levels they haven’t earned. They think their social media status should translate to real life status. Maybe they would get more done and see the chances and opportunities they have if they got off their phones.

  • PsyGuy

    When I find a parent that doesn’t think their child isa special snowflake, then I will stop because the truth will have changed. Until then it’s not wrong.

  • PsyGuy

    Vasectomy

  • PsyGuy

    Thinking they have limits does not reflect reality.

  • Hanope

    Name another business that does legal bait and switch after you paid for the service/goods?

  • LeeAnneClark

    I have to assume you’re not a parent. At least I HOPE you are not. Any parent who doesn’t think their child is special does not deserve to be a parent.

    That doesn’t mean that we do “hyperbole”, or expect better treatment for our children than any other child. There’s a difference between believing our children are special, and expecting our children to be treated better than anyone else’s children. We certainly DO expect them to be treated differently than adults, because…um…they’re not adults, they are minors and require more assistance and, at times, protection. They are not capable of doing the same things, or caring for themselves, the way adults are. And if you can’t see that, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.

    I’m praying you don’t have kids.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I assume you’re aware that if everyone took your advice, the human species would end?

    Wow. I have never seen such blatant hatred of children expressed by anyone. I will repeat what I said earlier: I’m praying you are not a parent.

  • PsyGuy

    I am not a parent and don’t have kids. See prayer does work.

    Although i still disagree with you. You believe that children should be treated differently than adults but what you are really insisting on is that children are a better class of people. I believe people should be treated equally. Children are not a special class of people. What you are requiring other people to do is to treat children differently and better fhan other people, that children are a special class of people who are entitled to more, they aren’t.

  • PsyGuy

    This would be bad for the planet how?

    I am not a parent, and don’t have kids. Wow, I answered two prayers today.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Wow. Well, we can only be grateful that you are not a parent. Please don’t ever reproduce.

    The fact that you can’t see that children are incapable of caring for themselves without adult assistance is kind of scary. But it’s good to know that you have that mindset. And especially good to know that you do not have children. The world thanks you. The last thing we need these days are more abused, neglected children.

  • JewelEyed

    The reality is that the oldest people of that generation are only in their early 30s. That’s not a lot of time to change the whole world, is it? Maybe a decade out of college at the most? I’m sure if I painted boomers or Gen Xers all with the same brush, people would be losing their minds, but because it’s trendy to dump on one particular generation and ignore the faults and failures of others that have had plenty of time to fix things or mess them up, it’s fine.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Y’know, a thought occurred to me: Do you also feel that disabled people should be treated the same as everyone else? And that any requests for additional help or support for them are unreasonable and asking for them to be a “special class” of people who are entitled to more?

    I’m just wondering. Because your belief that children should not be treated any differently than adults would mean that no child is entitled to the basics they need for survival. You ARE aware that children, at least up to a certain age, literally cannot survive without adult support? Same thing for disabled people – many literally cannot survive without assistance. So do you believe that those who cannot survive on their own should just be left to their own devices, and if they die…oh well?

    (At this point I would not be at all surprised if your answer is yes.)

  • PsyGuy

    Yeah they can’t take care of themselves because they are too busy snapchatting poses of themselves to other millennials or instagramming their meals (look at this food I’m about to eat). Maybe if they got off their phones and learned to do laundry, or actually cook, or basically anything that doesn’t involve swiping on a phone, I could have some sympathy. Millennials could use a little more neglect, instead of having mom and dad take care of everything for them and give them a trophy for doing it.

  • PsyGuy

    Do you know what other generations accomplished by their 30’s, they moved out of their parents home for starters. It’s trendy to dump on millennials because they make it so easy. I recently interviewed a millennial who was under the impression that their entry level position would come with an assistant, and they wanted their title to be project manager, despite, and this was shocking to them, they wouldn’t be managing any projects, they wouldn’t even be team lead. At least they are entertaining.

  • PsyGuy

    There is an ADA regulation that addresses additional assistance and aid as a requirement for those with disabilities. There isn’t I’m an angsty tween and can’t be separated from my phone for longer than 2 seconds or someone on instagram or FB will say something about me, and my life is so hard, and difficult and complex, and nobody understands the stress and pressure I’m under maintaining my vast social network presence, and Jenny just got a new Pokemon, that I don’t have, and being popular is just so important Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, blah. Meanwhile the rest of us want to get through the scanner and have our personal belongings xrayed because your tween/teen doesn’t understand exactly how long “just a moment” is. When that “act” becomes regulation, then your special snowflake can be “special”.

  • JewelEyed

    Right, because one generation has a monopoly on entitled jerks…

  • LeeAnneClark

    So you think that all special needs of children have to do with nonsense stuff like phones and Pokemon? Nothing to do with their inability to care for themselves, earn money, protect themselves, etc? And you think all children are teenagers? No compassion for small children?

    Your oversimplification of this is startling. (Well, it would have been startling before I learned what you think about children…but not anymore.)

    I think we’re done here. Just please…please…do not comment on an of my posts. I am so disgusted and horrified at your attitude towards children that, and I’m being quite serious here: I wish to have no further interactions with you. Ever. I would very much appreciate it if you would respect this. I’m asking you kindly: please leave me completely alone going forward. As a parent, I find it very upsetting to be reminded that there are people out there who hate children as much as you do, and I beg you to accept this and just…stay away. Thanks very much.

  • LeeAnneClark

    You ARE aware that not all children are teenagers, right? Wait…don’t answer that. I already know the answer.

  • PsyGuy

    No, there are jerks in every generation, the millennials have the monopoly on cluelessness.

  • ajaynejr

    I kind of think that Tyler was properly and correctly treated. He was put on the next operating flight, possibly involving bumping someone else.

    Normally unaccompanied minors are not booked on the last flight of the day in order to minimize connection problems. Here, a yet later flight was found for Tyler and the airline may use that flight if desired.

    Even hotel rooms are not the best situation. A child all alone in a hotel room can still get into trouble. Putting a supervisor in the room with him can lead to accusations of molestation. Some airlines have set up a corral in the airport for all of the UMs stuck overnight, with a sentry standing guard to keep any child from wandering off.

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