Free-range kids are becoming a problem at the airport. What’s the solution?

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By Christopher Elliott

Have you noticed all the kids at the airport lately?

Not so long ago, you could only find them at the terminal playground areas or the gates, where their parents kept a watchful eye on them. But no longer.

“It’s a free-for-all,” says Lisamarie Monaco, an insurance sales woman from Jacksonville, Fla. She knows a thing or two about traveling with youngsters as the mother of seven kids. And she’s been appalled at what she’s seen lately.

“Parents let their kids do whatever they want at the airport,” she says. “It drives me crazy.”

Passengers are complaining about free-range children running around the airport unsupervised. How bad has it gotten? When I lived in Santiago, Chile, last year, one young passenger jumped on a luggage belt and took a joyride. Airport workers eventually retrieved the child, who was unharmed. (Related: Don’t get bored on vacation: Tips to keep the kids engaged.)

The anything-goes attitude is often a preview of the flight to come. Who can forget that viral video of the toddler using her tray table as a springboard on an eight-hour flight? Or the frustrated United Airlines captain who wanted to divert his flight because of unruly schoolkids in the back of the plane?

Air travelers disapprove of free-roaming kids

Passengers are almost unanimous about this problem: 90 percent of travelers say parents should not let their kids roam free, according to a recent survey by Kayak. After all, your fellow passengers are not babysitters.

“These encounters with kids have become a bigger issue,” says Howard Pratt, a psychiatrist at Community Health of South Florida who specializes in treating children. “Not everybody traveling looks forward to interacting with kids who are not their own. So it’s not just a question of protecting your kids from strangers, but also about protecting other passengers from the potential stress they may experience from having to deal with kids they don’t know, yet who they may feel responsible for.”  (Related: How do I sit with my kids on a plane?)

What’s a parent to do? If you’re flying with young kids, you may wonder if it’s OK to let your kids run free anywhere at the airport. When are they old enough to let them out of your sight? What are parents’ responsibilities when it comes to allowing their kids to interact with fellow passengers? And also, what if you’re on the receiving end of attention from someone’s unsupervised child?

Should you allow children to run free in the airport?

Yes — and no.

“In a safe unpopulated area such as a terminal gate that is full of empty seats,” says Ashanti Woods, a pediatrician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. “Children need to play and burn energy, especially if we want them to sleep on the flight.”

But there’s a catch: Parents have to keep one eye on their kids and another on the departure gate to make sure the flight doesn’t leave without them. 

So should you let your kids run free in the airport? No, say experts.

“Children should not be allowed to run free in the airport,” says Bidisha Sarkar, a pediatrician at ClinicSpots, a travel medicine site. “It’s essential for safety and courtesy to keep them within reach at all times.”

What is an appropriate age to allow your kids to explore the airport without adult supervision? 

It depends. Timon van Basten, who runs tours in Spain, says he’s seen kids as young as 8 who have no trouble being independent in the airport terminal — and behaving. But it depends on the child and the airport.

“Busy airports like London Heathrow might prove too overwhelming for some kids,” he says. (Related: Is it time to ban kids from flying?)

Sarkar says parents have to assess their kids’ maturity and ensure they know all the airport protocols (no leaving the secured areas, be back in time for boarding). 

“Parents also have to ensure their children do not disturb others,” she says.

What is a parent’s responsibility when it comes to allowing their kids to interact with fellow passengers? 

I can’t believe I have to say this, but parents, you are responsible for your children at the airport.

“It’s the parent’s responsibility to keep their child from disturbing other passengers as much as possible,” says Brandi Taylor, a travel concierge.”If your child is trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger, keep an eye on the stranger’s reaction. If they are enjoying the interaction, then there’s no need to intervene. But if the stranger would obviously prefer to be left alone, you’ll want to redirect your child.” (Here’s our summer travel guide.)

Again, it depends on the child. When my kids were toddlers, they would talk to anyone. And not everyone wanted to get talked to. I erred on the side of caution and avoid the free-range kids problem.

“Parents should use the occasion to demonstrate many of the foundational etiquette skills that will serve them well their entire life, such as being mindful of others, respecting people’s personal space, being polite-yet-direct, and setting boundaries,” says etiquette expert Nick Leighton.

What if you have an encounter with an unsupervised child?

Don’t panic. The parents can’t be far away. But if you can’t find the parent, track down an airport or airline employee and ensure they know the free-range child is on the loose. 

Etiquette experts say — and I agree with them — you’ll gain nothing by approaching a free-range parent angrily. They already know what they’ve done, and they probably don’t care.

A lighthearted, “Look who I found?” might be the best approach. Yelling or finger-wagging will just stress you out even more, and it won’t change the parents’ behavior.

Those signs warning of child trafficking in the bathrooms are a good start. If that’s not enough to put the fear of God into a parent, I don’t know what is. More designated areas for kids to play would help, too. 

But ultimately, it’s up to parents to teach their kids good manners and responsible behavior. 

Have you had any run-ins with unsupervised kids at the airport?

I know you have! The comments are open. Tell me what happened — and what you did about it.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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