Are unaccompanied minor fees really necessary for teenagers?

By | January 6th, 2016

Airlines never met a fee they didn’t like.

And they also like maintenance-free passengers. My sense is that if carriers had their way they would ban children flying alone, period.

Even if unaccompanied minors are better behaved than many adults, they are potential liabilities, especially in our increasingly litigious age.

And while airlines can’t forbid underage passengers from flying, they are making it more and more expensive and, in some cases, raising the age limit. Delta and American have both upped the mandatory unaccompanied minor age to 14, and the fee to $150.

United Airlines has now decided to go them one better — or worse — by raising the age to 15.

For any ticket purchased after Dec. 14, 2015, any young person under the age of 16 cannot fly alone except as an unaccompanied minor with the $150 fee.

For tickets sold before Dec. 14, the unaccompanied minor service was required only for children aged 5 to 12.

“We made a thoughtful review of the policy and decided that this change will provide the best possible care for these travelers,” a United spokesman said.

(Just as an aside, United suggests on their website that parents pack snacks for their children for the flight, presumably because the fee doesn’t include even a snack box. And the airline, like others these days, only accepts credit cards to pay for food on board.)

Now, in my experience, many children get annoyed with the unaccompanied minor process before the age of 12. It’s not “cool” to wear a special tag, and to have to board and disembark with a flight attendant. In addition, these days most preteens have their own cell phones, which makes it much easier to stay in contact.

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Not all children are the same, and a well-traveled child or teenager will be a lot more comfortable flying solo than a first-time flier. In the past, older children who were worried about being on their own — or, more often, parents who worried about their older children — had the option of paying the unaccompanied minor fee. But this new policy is non-negotiable.

The fee doesn’t vary based on the fare or the distance involved.

Now, to be fair, the work involved in getting a child on and off a flight is basically the same, regardless of the length of the flight. But, for example, parents who have shared custody may find this $300 fee can be significantly more than the airfare itself, and may make the cost of some visits prohibitive.

Curiously, U.S. airlines generally say that 15 is the minimum age for sitting in the exit row. So United is saying that 15-year-olds are capable of helping in an emergency, but not of flying on their own — a major contradiction.

To me, requiring a paid escort at the age of 15 doesn’t make sense, although it would not surprise me if the remaining carriers followed suit. (Southwest and Alaska, at time of writing, still allow 12-year-olds to travel alone.)

Raising the unaccompanied-minor age means more revenue. And of course, then they can all raise the fee itself. Stay tuned.

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