Are unaccompanied minor fees really necessary for teenagers?

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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.

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.

Raising the unaccompanied minor age to 15 is:

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Janice Hough

I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of Elliott.org

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  • Jim Zakany

    By the time she was fifteen, my daughter had flown, perhaps, a dozen times. She knew the drill and wouldn’t require any hand-holding in the airport.

  • Jeff W.

    I think the poll question is somewhat over-dramatic. This is neither the result of a caring airline nor is it a money grab.

    Your article raises the points succinctly. We live in a litigious society. United has no way of knowing the maturity level of a 15 year old. And with the possibilities of flight irregularities always there, the unaccompanied minor fees puts additional protections (or burdens) in place that would not be there otherwise.

    And as for the sitting in the exit row. That is dictated by the FAA. They set the age requirements.

  • Flywisely

    When will they introduce Unaccompanied Senior? I can’t wait to be escorted in and out of the airplane :-)

  • BMG4ME

    Our daughter flew successfully on her own with United last year when she was 12, and she was considered old enough. Now she’s older and wiser and it’s suddenly necessary for her to get special treatment? That’s not right. They should at least allow someone that’s traveled alone once to do so again, without the fee, even if they are now too young when they were once old enough.

  • Bill___A

    With all of the “equality” laws in the USA, it is difficult to do things like this on a case by case basis. If extra effort or responsibility on the part of the airline is required, a fee is justifiable. How much the fee should be is debatable.

  • Regina Litman

    Actually, a story posted here earlier this week brought to attention a possible need for something like this, but an absolute age limit would not be a fair determinant of who would need this.

  • Mel65

    Same with my kids who’ve flown all over the world, several times alone; however, how do the airlines know that? If they ask parents, “is your child mature enough to fly alone,” how many of those parents would honestly say “NO” and how many would assure them that THEIR CHILD is a shining example of mature competence? I think the fee is excessive, especially since it’s EACH way, but I do understand the reason behind imposing a UAM fee of some sort.

  • Joe Farrell

    There was a thread on the Elliott forums about a kid traveling from BDL – IAH who was shuffled and overnighted in Denver after the original flight was canceled and she missed the rerouted connection in Chicago. This kid was 16 IIRC.

    Anyway – if this parent had this option – they could have avoided much of the misconnection cause there is no way the airline would not have held the flight for the UM cause there is likewise no way UAL would have paid for supervision for the child overnight anywhere!

    So this fee can be a good thing – depending on the reality . . .

  • Altosk

    Shameless money grab.

  • Jeff W.

    Your 12 year old may be wise beyond her years and someone else’s may be 12 going on 5. United has no way of knowing.

    Flying alone before is also not necessarily a great indicator. Plus what of the case where she flew once before on American and now her second flight is on United? A note from her parents?

    I think the administrative burdens to deal with exceptions are probably far too much to handle for a very small segment of the population. There are not that many unaccompanied minors flying about.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I agree that the fear of litigation justifies some extra charge by airlines to make up for the cost but… $150 is a clear grab. The question is: What does that service charge “buy?”

    For United, they only accept unaccompanied minors for direct flights. This could mean that if the flight is diverted for some reason due to weather, etc. then a guardian would need to be appointed to help the minor stay at a hotel and make a connecting reroute. An FA might need to pay extra attention to the unaccompanied minor to make sure they stay out of trouble. Note, most of these are only possibilities. The question is: How much does these contingency services cost and how often are they needed to justify a $150 fee? In the vast majority of cases, the airline is getting a $150 payday free and clear but like with travel insurance, if a flight is diverted and the minor needs supervision to get a hotel and make the next flight, it may cost more than $150 for a service (usually third party) to show up at the airport to escort the minor to/from a hotel and to the gate. If the airline loses the minor, then major litigation would ensue, certainly.

  • Lifetime Expat

    By the time I was 12 I was flying solo, transatlantic, with a transit in Atlanta, however I also know 17 year olds who probably couldn’t manage a direct flight without help. It depends on the child, and the people who know what level of competence they have is their parents.

  • Kate Carey

    I would feel better about it if we didn’t read stories on here and in the media about all the times they do nothing for the kids anyhow.

  • Lee

    Money grab but I am curious about any litigation that has arisen due to an incident involving a minor 15 years to 18 years old that would have made this change anything but a money grab. Airlines are like baby birds: their mouths are always open begging for more and more…money.

    My first flight alone was when I was 12 – no unaccompanied anything then. Dad took me to the gate (when one could still drop someone right at the gate), I boarded in Los Angeles, got a box lunch (included with ticked) and arrived in Chicago to catch a connecting flight. Wandered around looking for the gate only to find the flight had been cancelled.

    Had to go to a shop to get change for the public phone to call my mom back in Los Angeles to tell her. She called the airline. I got paged and went to the gate mentioned in the page. Ultimately, I had to wait until three other full planes leaving for my destination took off until one had a seat for me.

    I wandered O’Hare, stopped in a coffee shop, had french fries (I was alone!) and a milkshake, read my book. Boarded my flight about 6 hours later than originally planned and managed to arrive unscathed.

    No one blinked in my direction. Those were the days.

  • KanExplore

    It’s a money grab on the face of it. Has there been a spate of groundless lawsuits that would trigger such a thing? I’m not aware of it; thus, I think they’re just looking for revenue here. A responsible parent or guardian should be able to decline the fee and service for young people over the age of 12.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    Let’s go Goose-and-Gander, here. Any one in the ‘unaccompanied minors’ age group should also be allowed to sit with their parent/ adult on a flight on which they are accompanied, without having to pay for their seat assignment. If the logic is, ‘well, a 15-year old is to immature to travel without assistance’, then you should not charge when that minor traveler needs to travel next to their ‘assistant’.

  • sirwired

    I’m going to bet that after a few bad experiences (with or without lawsuits), the airline decided to “play it safe”. I honestly don’t think that it’s a cash grab, as the UM service is kind of labor-intensive and paperwork-heavy.

    That said, it does seem a bit incongruous that they are trusted to open the exit but not walk through the airport all by their lonesome’s.

  • Joe Blasi

    no they just go pay the $20-$50 seat fee or pay the $150 UM fee

  • RightNow9435

    One thing to do….for those with 14 and 15year olds..don’t book ’em on the “15 and under” airlines

  • KanExplore

    I think another issue here is the matter of “direct flights”. From my airport United has direct flights to only three cities. If a family wants to send their 15 year old to see a grandparent or noncustodial parent in another city than those three, what can they do? When a kid is 12 or under, you can say, well she’s just not old enough yet. But in the age when every teenager has a cell phone there are ways for a parent to stay engaged and on top of things when their kid is traveling. I just don’t think this raising of the age when kids can fly without an extra substantial fee – or make a connection – is based on anything but ramping up revenue. Require unaccompanied minor status up to the age of 12, then for 13-15 make it an optional service.

  • Jeff W.

    Many of the rules surrounding what one can and cannot do at that age are weird at best.

    Think of the drinking age (and now smoking age for some states). Why can’t an 18 year old drink or smoke, but can own a gun and join the military?

  • cscasi

    Perhaps if you tell the gate agent you are willing to pay one of the flight attendants on your flight $150 to escort you onto and off your flight, he/she might be able to find an accommodating one. :-)

  • Mel65

    Except that many parents suffer from delusion when it comes to their child. Some hover and treat them like toddlers until they’re 20 and others are ready to shove them out the door and act like good little adults at 8. I’m not sure I’d trust a lot of parental assurances about their kids!

  • IGoEverywhere

    Have any of you paid a bit of attention to what happens during a flight change for the “special” attention given? NADA! I doubt seriously that United is going to give stay in the area and babysit the 14 year old. I watch kids running all over the Pittsburgh and Dulles airports with special little tags on their shirts. This indeed is a money grabbing scam.

  • JewelEyed

    Sorry, but I don’t think anyone under 18 should be in the exit row to
    begin with. I think the FAA has made an error in judgment on that one.

  • JewelEyed

    I often think that having military ID should be an exception to that rule. If you show valid military ID, you can buy a drink or a pack of smokes to your heart’s content.

  • LFH0

    I would think that the need various from child-to-child. Those who are coddled–the “precious cupcakes” who are never left alone–might require the additional attention. Those who regularly ride the subway or bus to and from school each day might well be more capable of navigating air-based public transportation than some of the car-dependent passengers who otherwise would never use public transportation. But the carriers want bright line rules, and not to rely upon fairly-applied reason (perhaps they don’t trust their own employees to exercise good judgment).

  • bayareascott

    The policy is not specifically about your daughter.

  • bayareascott

    Having a cell phone and parent “engaged” does nothing when the child is stranded and the parent isn’t present, however.

  • bayareascott

    I questioned this at first as well, but the best reasoning I was given was this:

    Without the fee, many young kids (12+) are traveling on their own on any kind of itinerary, but the airlines are still liable for them as minors when there are travel disruptions. Even in the circumstance of an airline-caused overnight stay where the airline is providing hotels, minors cannot be sent to a hotel. So the airline is responsible for them, even though there were no limitations on their routing, etc. I find the desire to curtail the extreme potential liabilities reasonable.

  • BMG4ME

    Precisely. That’s my point.

  • bpepy

    My 12 year-old daughter was very annoyed that she had to stay in a special room and be accompanied by a FA–she was an experienced traveler. This was many years ago, and she still mentions it occasionally!

  • Hajime Sano

    Out of curiosity, did the airlines ever define the age of the person accompanying the minor? As I recall, in the story where three or four children boarded a Southwest flight on their own, the oldest kid (14 or 15?) said they were accompanying the younger (under 12 years old) kids. I may be off on a few details, but I believe something along these lines happened in this incident.