The number of children between the ages of 5 and 12 traveling alone, particularly by air, has risen steadily over the years. Estimates for how many children travel alone by plane in the United States per year run as high as 7 million. Children traveling alone, known in the travel industry as “unaccompanied minors,” raise a number of issues, the most important being liability and safety. In most cases, solo child travelers neither create nor encounter difficulties. Even the best-planned trip, however, can go wrong, and when unaccompanied children are involved the issues can be particularly problematic.
Many air travelers, for example, have had the frustrating experience of finding out that their luggage was accidentally placed on the wrong plane, and they may have to spend hours or even days tracking it down. But in August 2001, two girls ages 11 and 8 wound up in Toronto instead of San Diego because airline personnel placed them on the wrong connecting flight in Phoenix. While many airlines have strict rules about allowing unaccompanied children to transfer to connecting flights, others do not. (The airline that placed the two girls on the wrong plane quickly revised its policy.)
There are no official guidelines regarding the transport of unaccompanied children. Train and bus regulations are more strict than air regulations, but in all cases it is the transportation providers’ obligation to set the requirements. Neither the Air Transport Association nor the International Air Transport Association provides detailed guidelines or even statistics on the number of children traveling alone. The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) does note in its “Traveler’s Bill of Rights” that unaccompanied children have a right to “timely and courteous assistance” and that they should “never be abandoned or put in fear of being abandoned.”
These omissions do not mean that the government is unconcerned about unaccompanied children. The self-imposed industry requirements that must be met are considered stringent enough. With the rise in concern for travel safety in general since the fall of 2001, the government has taken a more active role. Still, airlines, trains, and bus lines are all still allowed to set their own rules for children traveling alone.
The necessary precaution for sending children on trips unaccompanied is that those making the travel arrangements should get as much information before the trip as possible about travel policies and procedures for children. Because rules are subject to change and in order to avoid potential difficulties, it is important to check each time a child travels.