Children put on flights as unaccompanied minors may not be as safe as we thought. As a mother who has sent her own kids on transatlantic flights as unaccompanied minors, at the ages of 9 and 10 respectively, this is unsettling.
Two years ago, a 13-year-old was sexually assaulted on an American Airlines flight, according to the Washington Post. A 26-year-old male sat by her side and declined the invitation that a flight attendant extended to him, to change seats. Thirty minute into the flight the flight attendant realized the man had his hand down the teenager´s crotch. The young girl had one single tear rolling down her cheek. Immediately, the guy was directed to a different seat and as soon as the airplane landed, the girl was ushered out and the aggressor was arrested. But as the teenager´s lawyer explained to the Washington Post, this is pretty outrageous because the parents paid the airline $300 to fly as an unaccompanied minor, and failed to watch over her, which is the whole point of paying this fee. This is not the first time such an unfortunate incident happens.
My eldest, now 16, has flown to Spain, her country of birth, as an unaccompanied minor a few times to meet with her extended family. When this shocking piece of news happened, I told her about it. I explained how sometimes we think we know how we will react when something of this nature happens, but that we could be so shocked in the moment that we freeze.
So, with travel season coming up and for parents that, like me, have to send their children as unaccompanied minors on flights, here are a few tips to protect your child or grandchild when you can´t fly with them.
1.- Know that every airline has different requirements, fees and rules and regulations about unaccompanied minors. Don´t assume that because you paid a fee they are going to make sure there is someone watching over your child during every second of the duration of the trip. The fees range between $50 and $150 each way. Some airlines don´t allow minors to switch planes (they have to be direct flights) and others won´t allow them on flights that operate in the evening. Go to the airline´s website and read up on their policies. I always take the additional precaution of calling them ahead of time to know what exactly is covered and what to expect from them.
Also read: 5 Tips for women to safely travel solo
2.- Make sure you understand the paperwork involved before you arrive at the airport. You will need to fill out a few forms, and also give them the name of the person who will pick up the child at the other end. Make sure that the person you designate to pick up the child can actually go to pick him or her up and carries I.D. to show the airline. They should not discharge the child to anyone other than the person you say will be responsible for meeting them at their destination.
3.- Arrive early at the airport and don´t leave until the plane has taken off. They will ask you to do that but they will not monitor it. So if you leave early and something were to happen, including a flight delay, and you live far, that would be a bigger hassle than waiting it out in the first place. When my eldest flew to Spain, at 9 years old, there were so many other kids that they took them all together and did not allow for the parents to go to the gate. With my youngest, who flew by herself at 10, they did allow the parents to see her off as she boarded as she was the only unaccompanied minor.
4.- Give your child a cell phone for further peace of mind and input all important phone numbers and put them on speed dial. When I sent both my children to Spain, I gave them each a cell phone. I gave them exact instructions of how to get in touch with me in the event that anything should happen. That was the best decision I made. When one of my daughters missed her connecting flight, she was able to call me and hear my voice. She was in a room with other children at the airport, but it was her first flight solo. Even if your child doesn´t usually carry a cell phone, I would consider a cheap one for solo plane trips.
5.- Tell your children what they should watch out for before they leave. Try to explain in a matter-of-fact and calm manner that if anything should happen that makes them uncomfortable they need to call for the flight-attendant. It´s a tough subject to bring up but I always think that if the child is old enough for it to happen to him or her, he or she is old enough to know. Of course, keep the language age-appropriate, but do let them know that they can and should make a fuss if anybody at all, including the airline personnel, should do something to them that feels bad.
The bottom line is, know what you are paying for when you sign up for the unaccompanied minor service (it IS a service after all), and make the airline accountable. And then, prepare your children for any situation in life, whether on a plane or anywhere else where an adult may try to molest them. And don´t wait to have these conversations until right before a trip comes up. I weave them into everyday life and it makes them much more palatable to my kids.