Whose responsibility are those unaccompanied minors?

Christina Welsch is young, dresses conservatively, and is usually alone when she flies.

Maybe that’s the problem: She just looks like a babysitter.

On several occasions, she says, flight attendants have asked her to keep an eye on the unaccompanied minors flying that day.

“I like children,” says the Ph.D student, “so I’m usually willing to oblige. But it surprises me that this is an issue at all. Surely airlines themselves should have employees more focused on this task.”

They should. Not that flight attendants are babysitters (ask them to oblige with one of your kids, and you’ll probably get an entirely different reaction). And yet their airlines collect hundreds of dollars per child to ensure junior gets to summer camp safely or that his stepmom can pick him up from the airport in Pittsburgh.

They don’t always do it well, mind you. Just last week we heard about how United Airlines lost a 10-year-old flying from San Francisco to Grand Rapids, Mich. (I wonder if she’ll get her fee refunded?)

Welsch is among a small but growing number of passengers who are troubled by junk fees for which people essentially get nothing. That should bother anyone who travels, come to think of it.

For example, on a recent flight from New Delhi to London, a British Airlines employee at the counter asked Welsch if she would be willing to sit next to and “look after” a young child.

“She arrived — never having flown before — without anything at all to do and immediately panicked upon watching the safety demonstration,” she remembers. “I asked for assistance from the flight attendants, but I was ignored.”

Adding to the confusion was the fact that the girl only spoke Hindi.

“I did not speak sufficient Hindi to have a conversation with the child,” she recalls. “But I was able to entertain her — for the next nine hours — with some paper and colored pens in my bag.”

I asked British Airways about Welsch’s stint as an unpaid babysitter. A spokeswoman denied the airline asked passengers to look after unaccompanied minors.

“Our highly trained cabin crew take the responsibility of caring for these children, whose safety and security has been entrusted to us, extremely seriously,” the spokeswoman said, adding, “There is a specific seating department which has a range of guidelines to ensure that we place in an appropriate seat and on some services, this will be in a specially created unaccompanied minors zone within a short distance of the cabin crew in the galley.”

That sounds nice, but experience tells me that airlines often treat unaccompanied minors like minor inconveniences at best and profit opportunities, at worst.

Enlisting the help of passengers to “look after” these young customers — if it’s true — would be the final insult. Not only does an airline not want to be bothered with flying unsupervised kids, but it wants to take our money and ask us to watch after them.

Come on.

Some airlines already place significant restrictions on unaccompanied minors, limiting their age, the type of flight and their seating. Shouldn’t they also make it crystal clear to the rest of the passengers that the $100 fee Mom and Dad paid covers the cost of the flight attendants — not other travelers — doing the babysitting?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I think the terms of the UM program needs to be spelled out. For instance, this is what United says they’ll do:Personally greet your child,Introduce your child to the cockpit, time permitting,Take your child to their seat and assist with carry-on items
    Orient your child to the safety features of the aircraft, Point out lavatory locations.

    That’s for children 5-17. It says nothing about entertaining them. That said, I would never put my 5 year old child on a plane by him/herself and I would hate to be seated next to an unaccompanied 5 year old.

    I think this “no winners” position takes advantage of people’s goodwill. Most of us normally want to help children. If asked and you don’t want to do it, ask for a seat change. If the child gets to a place where you can’t control him/her, I think the FAs have to step in. It’s not the responsibility of any other passenger.

  • kakeyte

    Flight from PHL to LHR on BA a few years ago a small boy (no older than 5) was seated next to me. Could not understand why someone so young was allowed to fly on their own. I was not asked to help, but did help him cut up his meal and use the toilet etc. Flight attendant’s gave me a bottle of bubbly on the way out – think I had done what they were expected to do on the flight & this was my reward. Now as a Mum cannot imagine putting a child under 10 on a flight alone.

  • Amy Alkon

    Parents who divorce when they aren’t in a high conflict marriage (boohoo, was your sex life less than stellar?) often set their kids up to be batted across the country on planes like these kids. My boyfriend sat next to such a kid on a trip from LA to Detroit. The kid was starved for affection — kept asking for “mommy hugs” from the lady next to him. Tragic.

  • lorcha

    This is more of an academic question for me because no one would ever ask me, a man, to care for an unaccompanied minor. Apparently being male makes me a deranged serial rapist ax murderer or something like that. Now if only I could figure out how to get my ax through security!

    Anyway, there is no way I’d agree to look after someone else’s kid on a long-haul flight. If it was an hour or two, I wouldn’t mind. But that’s about my limit. After that, I’d start reaching for my ax, for sure!

  • oceankitten

    one a recent flight from orange county to salt lake city, i was asked if i would “keep an eye” on an unaccompanied minor. the flight was only about half full and i suppose as a traveling alone, late-thirties woman, i was the most non-threatening person on the flight. i said sure, as it was a very short flight, and the boy was very polite, but i still think it’s odd that they would rather seat the boy with me, about half-way back in the plane than put him in one of the numerous empty seats in the front, where the flight crew actually spent most of the flight.

  • Rosered7033

    Sometimes a parent or legal guardian has little choice but to send their precious one unaccompanied on a flight. What exactly are they paying for, though? When I used this service, I expected someone (flight attendant? I assumed) to provide supervision, direction and safety. As you said, Chris, the airline is being paid, not the passenger sitting beside my darling(s). Maybe the parent needs to be allowed to board with the child to assist in the seating and settling-in, as well as being allowed to assist with disembarkation (after all other passengers have exited).

  • Rosered7033

    You are a parent’s worst nightmare! ;-)

  • BillCCC

    I did not answer since the solution IMHO is not to have unaccompanied minors on airplanes. If a parent or guardian wants their child to fly without them they should pay for someone to accompany the child. I am not sure if there are businesses that offer this service. I am sure flight attendants have more pressing duties.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Apparently, I’m also exempt from looking after other people’s kids, since some airlines have decided I’m a serial ax murderer and can’t be trusted next to a child because of my Y chromosome. Someone better warn my children! ;-)

  • lorcha

    Oh, my kids are already onto me. They went and hid my ax!

  • backprop

    You sound like a real treat.

  • cahdot

    it is not the younger ones that i see as a problem but the elderly that are dumped at the gate by realatives and they are out to lunch… They are put next to someone who has to babysit them and they are more difficult to deal with as they are clueless as to where they are going and keep wanting to get up and leave etc,,,, and can get agitated when in a new unfamiliar environment ……..

  • TiaMa

    It’s not that I wouldn’t want to be helpful especially if the child is well-behaved, but aren’t there some potential liability issues at play here? The parents pay the Unaccompanied Minor fee to the airline. It’s the airline’s responsibility to deal with the child. If I try to be nice and agree and something happens, I don’t want that hanging over my head. I would politely decline.

  • jebaker

    If a child is not mature enough to fly alone, you should not count on the airlines as a babysitter. If your child is then you need to pack plenty of activities that the child can participate in by him or herself and snacks. It’s unfair to expect a passenger to look after your child

  • S363

    They ARE paying someone! They are paying the airline! For what they are paying, the airline could probably put on an extra attendant for that flight.

    Or, they could hire me – I’d be willing to take some flights for good pay. Oh wait a minute, I’m male and therefore obviously a pervert pedophile, that would never do.

  • Nica

    I am concerned that this is happening. What if the airline asks someone who they think “looks like a good person” to watch the child and the person is a predator of children? Then on top of that the airline says only females can sit next to children… I am sorry, are there no women pedophiles? The airline needs to rethink that policy.

    Then to impose on a passenger (female – since apparently all males are pedophiles according to the airlines policy) to watch after a child just because she is a female? Can we say gender discrimination on both sides? Not all women have the maternal instinct – some I know actually hate children (I am not one of them – love kids). Not all men are out to get children – there are plenty of single dads raising their children in loving environments.

    I think that if the airline is willing to take the money to put the little one on the plane by him/herself, then they and they alone bear the responsibility of making sure they are cared for and get to their destination safely.

  • JenniferFinger

    One time my cousin and I were asked by a flight attendant to assist an unrelated child traveling alone sitting between us (I had a window seat, my cousin had the aisle seat on that row). While we didn’t mind helping out, that wasn’t our job.

  • Katie Freeman

    I had to sit next to a child of about 7 or 8 on a flight earlier this year (actually, she was supposed to sit next to my husband, but he was uncomfortable being next to an unaccompanied female minor, so we switched). She wasn’t technically unaccompanied–her parents and two younger sisters were on the flight too–but they were airline employees nonrevving and couldn’t get seats together. So the oldest child had to sit by herself. The whole flight, she was kicking, squirming, and dropping stuff. And her parents kept coming back to check on her, and in the process leaning over me and hitting me in the face with mom’s necklace and dad’s badge lanyard. Never an “excuse me” or “sorry.” Sorry, but I pay for my own seat and mind my own business. Other people’s kids, stuff, etc., are not my problem and I would have an issue with an airline trying to make it my problem.

  • john4868

    Until the airline decides to pay me, including all of their benefits (free flights, healthcare, wage rates, liability, etc), I’m not watching a UM for them.
    And if the child is a pain, they’re getting a letter and invoice to that affect.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    This is a garbage question seemingly posed by the airlines. I am delighted at the
    present score with an overwhelming majority blaming them.

  • http://twitter.com/nectarinetweet Anna Grice

    I don’t think I would want to watch over someone else’s child(ren) on a flight, regardless of how long it is. How often do you hear about good samaritans being sued by the person they were helping? Its so sickening to me to hear those stories.

    I am a parent myself and I do care about kids. I guess I’ll know what I would do and won’t do if I ever find myself in this position. I just hope that I would do the right thing.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Sorry it was such a bad experience. But, boy oh boy, did your hubby sucker you. Uncomfortable sitting next to an unaccompanied female minor? Seriously? He must have thanked his lucky stars it was a girl because that made the excuse a bit stronger, though I still can’t believe you fell for it. And even after you started getting irritated, he still wouldn’t swap you back to give you some relief? You did pay for your own seat…and it sounds like your husband really enjoyed it!

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The flight attendants may have more pressing duties, but that’s something they need to take up with their employer because the airlines are charging for this service.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MikeSzabo Michael Szabo

    Technically speaking you are paying the airline to babysit. That is in essence what the unaccompanied minor fee is all about. My kids aren’t old enough to fly by themselves, and once they are I would always send them on a non-stop flight (I don’t trust the airlines to not lose my children somewhere). So that $50-$200 fee should cover the 4 hours of babysitting time until they get to grandmas. Certainly asking a passenger todo it is completely wrong.

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeInOn

    There’s also the other side of this coin…..parents who want to “dump” their kids at the ticket counter and rush off or the ones that keep the kid waiting when they arrive at their destination. I can remember a young child (about five) crying and upset that his mother hadn’t come yet. She came two hours after the flight had landed !…..some lame excuse was given. We had to keep him entertained at the ticket counter during a very busy day as we had no one to babysit this kid in a back room. Naturally there are always some of us who take pity and buy something to eat for them and assure them that mommy or daddy is coming (while we are frantically making repeated phone calls, hoping they will answer their phone).
    Thankfully these type of incidents are not frequent but responsible adults need to be in the picture at all times. Yes, I do agree that the airline should be the main caretaker once the child is onboard.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Sounds like somebody else could have used a few more mommy hugs earlier in life!

  • emanon256

    I think the airline should be responsible for the child, after all, isn’t that why they charge for an UM?
    In my experience, the UMs are actually better than when the parents are also on board and not seated together. When the parents are somewhere else the parents keep getting up and bothering me, and causing a fuss, and ignoring the flight attendants telling them to stay out of the aisle. When I have been seated next to an UM, they often have a game or book and keep to themselves. I guess I have been lucky in that respect.

  • BillCCC

    You didn’t use enough !s for me to agree with you.

  • DavidYoung2

    So? On the Amtrak last week the guy across from me asked me to ‘look after’ his backpack while he went to the cafe car. I shoo’d away one couple that was going to sit there. Big whoop.

    To me ‘keep an eye on’ means do what any decent human being would do for a child. If they spill something, ask the FA for a napkin. If they don’t know how the seatbelt works, show them. It doesn’t mean you have to color with them or read them stories. Just keep an eye out for a kid. If you see something ‘off,’ let the FA know. Or is that too much bother? Sheesh, what kind of people are out there these days.

  • ClareClare

    Just flew Lufthansa yesterday Munich-Rome (ah, flying in Europe, thousands of miles away from TSA! but I digress), and on the flight there were two UM sisters, ages 9 and 13 or so. The FA’s were totally all over them–I mean that in a good way–seating them right near the FA’s station, even escorting them to the bathroom. I wasn’t even paying particular attention, but kept noticing how often the FA’s were fussing over these girls, making sure all was okay. NO WAY they were asking anyone else to do their job here! So for what it’s worth, if you have to fly your kids unaccompanied anywhere, you might see whether the ever-efficient, responsible Germans are flying where you need them to go–I would definitely have felt comfortable leaving kids with them.

  • TexanPatriot1

    It’s mindblowing that 9 people actually think it’s the passenger’s job. They are probably FA’s.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HMW3OTJSBDWWRKIEKEKWWM7BEA bc

    This is what I came here to say. The airlines love to remind us they’re a business and supposedly we love unbundled air prices and get to charge us fees for every little thing. If they recruit someone to assist, there’s no reason they shouldn’t offer them some compensation.

  • Rose

    Whoa now. Let me tell you something. I’m a flight attendant. I have never asked another passenger to look after a child. But let me explain something to you about my job. I don’t get paid to babysit. I check on the child repeatedly, ask them if they need anything, make sure they know if they need anything or have any questions to ask me, normally bribe them with snacks, and then, they’re on their own until I’ve finished all my stuff and I have time. I have an entire plane full of other people, some of them requiring more attention than the child. I’m surprised this article veered so much towards the flight attendants. Are the children getting lost on the plane? Because then we might have an issue. Also, if there is an emergency, yes, it’s my job to assign someone to the UM. I choose not to do this ahead of time, but I know quite a few FA’s who ask the people next to the UM to watch out for them. Don’t take this as “I have you hostage in a giant tin can at 35,000 ft, you cannot run, babysit this child!” Please, please, please don’t. To some flight attendants, that means, “Hey, this kid is flying by themselves, they’re alone and I have many other responsibilities. Can you help me keep an eye on them?” And what, in the world, is wrong with that? If you don’t want to, tell us! No, big, deal. Just like if you don’t want to sit in the exit row, TELL US. I understand that some people might get offended by being asked to keep an eye on a child, but that does not mean you have to entertain them, do a tap dance, or anything. It just means, if there is an issue, press that little light above your seat and get a FA’s attention. The children are our responsibility, but, like I said, we have other things to do and it is not our job to stand over them or keep them entertained the entire time either. If you’re a parent and you don’t think you’re kids able to keep themselves occupied the majority of a flight, don’t send them.
    On another note, I do not see how all these missing UM’s keep happening. It’s sad. It is so easy to keep an eye on these kids, to make sure they get from your hands to the right person. It’s just laziness.

  • Raven_Altosk

    It is the airline’s responsibility, period. If they want to accept small children as pax without an adult and charge money for it, then they need to pony up the service. Could you imagine this same scenario with a disabled pax? Most airlines require those needing assistance to fly with a caregiver. What if, to earn a few extra bucks, the airlines started allowing these people to fly without a caregiver. Would you want to be “asked” by an FA to help a complete stranger feed themselves or use the restroom?

    I was recently seated next to an UM. She was a polite girl of about 10 years. She had an iPad that entertained her most of the flight. She saw I had a PSP and asked me about the games I played on it. I don’t consider this “watching” the child. However, had she been anything but mature and polite, I would’ve been annoyed if the FA “asked” me to entertain her. Not. My. Job.

    (I say “asked’ because these days saying “no” to an FA might just get you kicked off a flight)

  • Raven_Altosk

    Hey man, watch out! Remember that nutjob that didn’t want me sitting next to her daughter because “all men are potential rapists!?”

    Yeah, we all know she really wanted my exit row aisle seat because she didn’t want the FAs to move the teen daughter, she wanted them to move ME!

  • Rose

    And you’re paying for the people who walk your child from plane to plane, plane to desk, watches them while waiting. Not a FA. My pay stays exactly the same.

  • naoma

    There is no way, no how I would ever consent to “watch out for an unaccompanied child.” I had a child who was very well-behaved and those days are over. I would simply “REFUSE” because I am not a baby-sitter and who knows what sort of rules the parents imposed on the child. My child was never hit, spanked, etc. and we always told her the truth about ANYTHING she asked. Not all parents are like we were. By the way, she grew up just fine — went to Oxford and is a happy and successful young woman who always says she loved her childhood because it was quite different from her friends. We often had her friends come to the door and ask us questions such as how she was allowed to say ANY WORD in the house but when she went out she would never use unacceptable words.

  • cjr001

    I’m sorry, but the airlines cannot have it both ways.

    They cannot go assuming that men are automatically pedophiles and not sit them next to unaccompanied minors, as a couple of airlines have done recently, and then turn around and assume young women are willing to ‘parent’ a child for a flight.

    If the airline wants to allow unaccompanied minors, then they damn well better take full responsibility of them. Otherwise, trying to push them off on other passengers makes them no better than the too many parents who themselves refuse to parent their children on flights (or anywhere).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001823466572 Jen Armstrong

    I cannot believe the mother was that late! I thank you for taking time to care for him but you shouldn’t have had to do that. Don’t put your child on a plane unaccompanied if you don’t plan on following through on your end and picking him up ON TIME! Put yourself in that child’s place…you’d be scared to death too

  • MarkieA

    Maybe the same kind of folks who read about ridiculous, frivolous lawsuits every day. Who read about people accused of sexual harassment for looking at someone the wrong way. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not looking to take responsibility for someone else;’s child for even two minutes.

  • MarkieA

    But the parents are paying the airline. Whether or not the airline passes that on to the FA or to any of the others involved is really of no concern to the parents.

  • IrishStubborn

    I remember flying as a UM back in the 70’s (ah, the good old days!). My parents paid extra and they got what they paid for. FAs have more passengers to deal with than ever before (when was the last time you were on a flight with empty seats??!!), and the airlines don’t care if they are overworked or overwhelmed. That being said, however, if the airlines are going to charge for the service, they need to PROVIDE THE SERVICE!! They should have someone on staff who’s job it is to fly with the UM, and not put it on the FAs or the other passengers. Unless, of course, they refund my ticket price if they ask me to “keep an eye” on someone!!

  • IGoEverywhere

    You have truly hit the nail on the head! It is not your responsibility. It is the airline’s and they have no hard fact and rules to guide you. I will not take this responsibility, not that I’m mean, but, I want to read, sleep, enjoy the little comforts that are left on our meagerly run airlines, not talk to the “kid”.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I only read through about half the comments here so if I’m repeating something said by another poster, my apologies.

    If the airlines are going to “request” passengers “keep an eye on” a UM, they need to come up with some perks for that. Someone mentioned a bottle of bubbly – I think that would buy my grace… Also, some miles would be nice, for completely disrupting what might have been an otherwise uneventful flight.

    My belief is, the airline has already been paid by the parents to “keep an eye on” a UM. It’s their responsibility, not mine.

  • Angelo

    The responsibility is fully with the Airline who accepted the UM.

  • jennj99738

    A backpack is not a child. The airline should not be asking passengers to do its job for it. Taking responsibility for a child means accepting liability as well. No one but the airline, the one charging the fee, should be asked to accept that responsibility.

  • Ken Rahr

    Who are the 14 idiots that actually think its another passengers responsibility to take care of unaccompanied minors?

  • StarKiller

    Look after a kid? Sure $25/hour, cash upfront.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Flight attendants. Although, to be clear, I’m not calling them idiots.

  • TonyA_says
  • David Hook


    The article also says the British Airways stopped this practice in 2010 as it broke UK sex discrimination laws. Do other countries have a similar law?

  • Timon_8

    In fact, many of us would be happier and more comfortable if there were no children allowed on some flights at all. Child-free flights is an idea whose time has come!