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Updated Monday, November 26, 2012 at 04:31 PM

Despite airline’s high fee, little help for a child flying solo

By Catharine Hamm
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Q: My 9-year-old daughter recently flew as an unaccompanied minor from Los Angeles to Boise, Idaho. The fee was $99 each way, but there was no real service. I had to take her to the gate, she was picked up at the gate by my friend and on the flight she was treated just like everybody else. Besides that, she was seated next to a male passenger. Her soccer team can’t even practice with the two male coaches without a mom being there. We were shocked. What is the policy?

A: One question that arises immediately: What is that fee for, exactly? “United representatives supervise the children, escort them to and from the gate and provide support and guidance throughout their travel experience,” said Charles Hobart, a representative for United.

In the case of Heidenwag’s daughter, however, United refunded the money after Heidenwag said she couldn’t detect any such service for her child. In an email, the customer service rep said, “From your feedback, it sounds like the service that you paid for was not provided. I apologize.”

Airline reps assured me that every airline does its best to ensure a child’s safety, whether it’s making sure the junior flier is comfortable (but, remember, this is not a baby-sitting service) or ensuring his or her physical safety.

That’s where the question of seating becomes a hot potato. According to a CNN report, on a recent Virgin Australia flight, an unaccompanied minor, or UM, was seated next to a male passenger; the child was moved. The man was upset because he felt as if he were suspected of being a pedophile.

What’s an airline to do? James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore Airlines, said his airline wants the child on the aisle near the galley because, he noted, “that’s the crew’s office” and the child has proximity to crew members. Or, said another way, “Child molesters would be less likely to attempt molestation if (children) were more visible,” said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist on the clinical faculty at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Singapore also tries to seat UMs next to an empty seat. If that’s not possible, the next best seat is near a family or a couple, Boyd said.

Forget the scoldings you get for being a helicopter parent who hovers. Airlines want parents to take an active role in choosing a child’s seat, so keep Boyd’s tips in mind. If your child has a seat you aren’t comfortable with, get proactive and work with airline personnel, just as you would if you got a dog of a seat for yourself. “Our gate agents always try to accede to a parent’s wishes whenever possible,” said Mary Frances Fagan, a representative for American Airlines.

You can’t select your child’s seat mate, of course, but you can equip him or her to handle a bad situation. “If the parents want to protect the child, the most important thing is to talk to them about the things to be concerned about, and that may involve talking to them about somebody who seems too friendly and who gets into personal space or touching in ways that are not comfortable and telling the child what to do,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and an authority on prevention of child sexual abuse.

One victim of childhood sexual abuse worries that a child alone could be a target for sex traffickers, and, in fact, he never let his three sons or any of his five grandchildren fly alone. But, he said, he understands that sometimes there is no other way for children to get somewhere.

“If they need to talk, if they need help, you should tell them to seek out the ladies with the uniforms that are the flight attendants rather than asking passengers for anything,” said Danny Wallace, head of Danny Wallace Ministries of Atlanta. “I would want my minor child focused on officials.”

But not scared out of his or her wits. Most of life comes with risks, and the parent must decide whether it’s worth it.


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