Flown alone

Prepare children for solo travel.

It's bad enough when the airline loses your luggage.

But if they lose your child, well, that's just plain unacceptable.

Unfortunately, that's precisely what happened recently when two unaccompanied minors, both traveling to different destinations, left Spokane, Wash., on the same flight bound for Minneapolis. From there, one was going to Boston and the other to Cleveland. When their paperwork got switched, the two young girls wound up in the wrong cities.

That incident, while rare, is enough to scare any parent with a child who travels solo.

And this time of year, lots of children travel by themselves, according to Charleston International Airport public relations director Becky Beaman. The summer and holidays are peak times for children traveling solo on the airlines. Many are going to spend some time with their other parent or a grandparent.

The technical name for them is "unaccompanied minors" and it means a child, generally 5 to 11 years old (and sometimes up to 15), who is traveling without a parent, guardian or another trusted adult that the child knows.

So many children travel alone that airlines, Amtrak and Greyhound all have programs to address their specific needs. Each also has its own rules, so it's best to do some research before making reservations.

Unaccompanied minors also can travel by train and bus, but those methods are a little bit more restrictive because of the stop-and-go nature of those methods of travel. Both Greyhound and Amtrak require children to be at least 8 years old and travel only during the day and on trips of five hours or less.

"Watching a plane take off with your child aboard is a scary thing," Maggie Somers of North Charleston says of her daughter, Emily, 10, who has flown to Virginia and Tennessee to visit her father, Somers' ex-husband.

"When she was little, I used to fly with her or we'd drive and meet halfway. But now she feels comfortable flying by herself, although I have to admit I don't relax until I hear her voice and she's safe at her destination."

Generally, you have to let the carrier know

when booking travel for a child that he is traveling alone. Most charge an extra $50 or $100.

Most have restrictions such as requiring that solo kids travel only on direct flights or those that don't require a connection.

"Most airlines rules are about the same," Beaman says.

For a better chance at a smooth trip, try to book your child on an early flight. Afternoon departures can be delayed by thunderstorms and the last flight of the day leaves no other options.

Prepare your child for the trip ahead of time.

"One reason I traveled with Emily was because she was nervous about takeoffs," Somers says. "But once she knew what to expect and learned some tricks like chewing gum to help her ears pop, she was more comfortable."

On travel day, arrive at the airport in plenty of time to check in and to obtain an "escort pass" that will allow one adult to accompany the child to the gate or security checkpoint.

The airport itself is not involved with the child's travel, and security personnel do not have authority to allow parents without the proper paperwork to pass through with their child.

Parents will be asked to sign their child over to the carrier, and to show the proper documentation, which can include a copy of a birth certificate, flight information and more, at this time. Most airlines require parents to wait until the flight is in the air.

"Parents are usually required to wait at the gate until the plane takes off," Beaman says. "Sometimes planes go out and then have to come back for some reason."

Even if you think you've covered all your bases and the airline doesn't mix up the paperwork, there can still be problems. Flights can be delayed or canceled altogether. Connections may be missed. Often, the airlines will contact the person listed on the child's form when that happens, so make sure that the person listed can be reached by phone while your child is traveling.

"When they get where they are going, the person picking them up will have to show an identification," Beaman says. Even if a child recognizes Dad or Grandma, the airline won't let the child leave until the identification matches.

If you think there has been a violation of regulations, you can contact the U.S. Department of Transportation. There are, however, no regulations regarding the treatment of unaccompanied children.

Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713.