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The plane has arrived! What you should know before flying as an unaccompanied minor

Most children as young as five years old should be developmentally ready to travel alone.
Traveling alone can help children develop responsibility and problem-solving skills.

Each airline has its own policies regarding minors travelling alone.
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Carmen Wilson-Wright took their first solo flight from Baltimore to San Antonio, Texas, when they were eight years old.

Wilson-Wright, whose pronouns are they/them/their, said it felt natural because their mother is a travel journalist.

“I was already a more experienced pilot. “I’ve been flying since I was ten days old,” they explained. “To be honest, I wasn’t nervous at all. My mother had been preparing me for that my entire life.”

Wilson-Wright, now 17, says she still flies alone at least three or four times a year and that knowing she can take care of herself even when she’s hundreds of miles away from anyone she knows has given her a strong sense of independence.

Most US airlines will allow children as young as 5 to fly as unaccompanied minors, though restrictions and the level of supervision required vary depending on the carrier and the passenger’s age.

Child development experts told USA TODAY that allowing children to fly unaccompanied can be a great way to help them develop their sense of self, and that 5 was a good age for most children to begin having that opportunity under the right circumstances.

Is my child prepared to fly alone?
Every child develops at a different rate and responds to different situations in their own unique way, but most should be able to fly alone at a young age, according to psychiatrists.

“Most people underestimate children,” says Lea Lis, a child psychiatrist and author of “No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships.” “Unless your child has a developmental delay or something, they should be fine with a trip.”

Most airlines require unaccompanied minors to be escorted to their departure gate and met at their arrival gate by an adult guardian, and Lis believes that the way most airlines structure travel for solo children gives them a sense of independence without putting them in any real danger.

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“It could be their first opportunity to be away from their carer, and airlines and airports are extremely safe,” she said. “It gives them a sense of freedom without putting their safety and security at risk.”

Marcel Green, a private practise psychiatrist in New York City who works with Hudson Mind and The Children’s Village, among other organisations, believes that solo travel can help children become better problem solvers.

“It promotes the development of a cognitive skill known as executive functioning, which refers to one’s ability to coordinate and carry out planning,” he explained. “Traveling alone is an extremely important task, and if a child is sufficiently supported to master that task, it will correlate with faster development.” How can I prepare my children to fly independently?
Lis puts her words into action. Her then-7-year-old daughter travelled alone to Germany to visit a great aunt in 2017.

“They upgraded her to first class, which she loved,” Lis explained.

While a first-class seat is unlikely for any young adventurer, there is plenty carers can do ahead of time to help kids be more calm and comfortable.

“Make it enjoyable rather than frightening,” Lis advised. “Rather than saying, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be so difficult for you,’ say, ‘This is going to be so enjoyable for you.'”

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She added that doing something special, such as giving the child a small gift to unwrap on the plane, could help make the trip more exciting and provide a good distraction if they become bored or nervous.

Green stressed the importance of ensuring that children can handle other tasks independently first.

“Is the child capable of running an errand on their own under the supervision of parents?” he asked. “That would be a good gauge, and gradually making it more difficult,” by assigning them more involved tasks that require them to be away from their normal support network for longer periods of time.

Green explained that “you essentially want to see how emotionally balanced a child can be” when they are not with their family.

It’s also important to check in with the child ahead of time to make sure they’re feeling ready.

“I’d ask the child, ‘How do you feel when you’re alone? What should you do if you require assistance? When you’re upset, who do you turn to? Do you know how to contact your parent if you are upset?” Green stated.

Lis agreed that it’s critical for children travelling alone to memorise important contact information and know how to contact someone who can help in an emergency. She also stated that some children may not be ready to travel alone.

“If a child is extremely anxious in general… that is probably not the child to send on a plane alone,” she said. “A child who is adventurous and has that kind of spirit will most likely fare better.”

Wilson-Wright also stated that in their experience, it is critical for children to be involved in the planning and preparation of their own trip.

Will my child behave differently after a solo trip?
Flying without a parent can definitely help a child feel more independent, which can have a positive impact at home and on future family trips.

“It could be linked to better behaviour within the family unit as well as in other social settings where we expect children to behave,” Green said.

Lis added that after a trip on their own, giving children more responsibility should be a natural next step.

“You did this by yourself; what else can you do by yourself?” she advised. “‘You’re a kid who flew alone on a plane; you can make your own snack.'”

Airline regulations
Most airlines have similar policies for unaccompanied minors. The following are the policies of the four largest carriers in the United States.

American Airlines’ policy on unaccompanied minors

Children as young as five years old can fly unaccompanied on American Airlines. For single children or groups of siblings, the airline charges $150 each way. Unaccompanied minors are entitled to priority boarding, kids-only lounges in the airline’s hubs for those with connecting flights, a snack kit for travellers under the age of 10, and airport escorts as well as flight attendant supervision onboard.

Children aged 15 to 17 are permitted to fly as standard passengers, but any unaccompanied minor aged 5 to 14 must use the unaccompanied minor programme. Children aged 5 to 7 are only permitted to travel on nonstop flights.

Delta Air Lines’ policy on unaccompanied minors

Some Delta flights allow children as young as 5 to fly unaccompanied. The service costs $150 each way for up to four children and includes priority boarding, kids-only lounges in the airline’s hubs for those with connecting flights, airport escorts, and flight attendant supervision onboard.

Children aged 15 to 17 are allowed to fly as standard passengers on any Delta flight, but all unaccompanied minors aged 5 to 14 must use the unaccompanied minor programme. Children aged 5 to 7 are only permitted to travel on nonstop flights.

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