Unhappy campers find fewer flights for kids traveling solo

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Child on planeGetting kids to summer camp or to visit relatives, which can be an anxiety-ridden process, became even more challenging this summer for some parents who have found that they had fewer choices because fewer airlines allow unaccompanied minors on connecting flights.

Only three airlines — Alaska Air, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines — offer unaccompanied-minor service on connecting flights, and only for children age 8 or older. The rest offer this service only on nonstop or, sometimes, on direct flights.

Last December, United Airlines joined most other airlines by limiting its unaccompanied-minor service to nonstop flights. This new policy by one of the nation’s top three carriers caught many camps and families by surprise this summer.

Faye Jackson, a travel agent for Frosch Travel in Denver, said some campers were unable to get to the camp they wanted and had to change camps, a hardship because many of the campers she handles are underprivileged children attending camps on scholarships.

It was a problem for other camps, as well.

“This has been a very big issue for us a few times this summer,” said Jamie Vorwald, office manager for Colvig Silver Camps in Durango, Colo., a city that has nonstop service from only three cities. Most of its campers have to make one or two connections in order to get to Durango. Having unaccompanied-minor service for campers taking connecting flights was the only way that some campers could get to camp.

“This year all of our young travelers struggled to find accommodating flights,” she said.

Vorwald said that Colvig came up with a variety of solutions. One was drafting parents of past or current campers who live in Denver to meet children in the Denver airport and escort children to their connecting flights.

Some parents ultimately flew their children to camp themselves, buying two roundtrip tickets for themselves and one for their children to take them to camp and pick them up.

“We were caught off guard this year with United’s policy change,” Vorwald said. Next year, she said, the camp may hire staff to spend a day in the Denver, Phoenix and Dallas airports, which have direct flights to Durango, to meet campers and escort them to their connecting flights.

She said that the camp had called United, which she described as being sympathetic to the camp’s plight but had offered no solutions.

Leann Krenz, a travel consultant with Travel One in Minneapolis who books campers traveling to Camp Birchwood on Steamboat Lake in northern Minnesota, said that it had not been “that big of a deal” for her, but colleagues had had problems in getting children to a camp in Pennsylvania.

Some camps already had practices in place that circumvent the problem.

Camp Birchwood, for example, draws a large number of campers from Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City.

For several years it has provided its own escorts on flights, sending counselors to these cities to pick up campers and fly with them to Minneapolis.

Birchwood tries to select counselors who are from those cities because it means they know the airports and can have a quick visit with their own families, as well, said Courtney Binnie, assistant director for Camp Birchwood. After landing in Minneapolis, campers and counselors board a motorcoach for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to the camp.

Adding salt to the wound for some parents was the fact that United reduced its service and upped its fee from $100 to $150.

“A lot of people are like, what’s the point of even having it if it’s only a direct flight? What people really need is the connection,” said Aileen Setiawn, general manager of Discover Travel, who books travel for Visions Service Adventures, which offers community service trips for middle schoolers and high schoolers. It has two programs in Montana, which means participants often have to change planes in Denver.

Tracy Holman, a spokeswoman for the American Camp Association, said that the association had anecdotal reports of some parents flying their children from different airports or changing airlines in order to get their children to camp this summer. While there has been little feedback on the topic, she said that it sometimes can take a full season for problems to surface.

Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, whose members have 10,000 children participating every summer, said that most Maine campers who fly to camp are coming from one major airport to either Boston or Portland, Maine, which has many direct flights. He had not heard of any major problems.

Airlines do not allow children under a certain age, usually 5, to fly without an adult companion (usually someone who is at least 15 or 18 or older; rules vary by airline).

For older kids, airlines offer unaccompanied-minor programs for fees ranging from $25 to $150 each way, subject to a variety of rules and restrictions that vary by carrier.

Typically, the child’s parent or guardian is required to get a pass that allows them to escort the child through security to the gate, where airline employees greet them and escort the child onto the plane.

Generally airlines try to put unaccompanied minors near the front of the plane or in specific seats to make it easier for flight attendants to monitor them.

Once children arrive at their destination, airlines meet the adult designated to pick up the child at the arrival gate. The adult who picks up the child gets a security pass in order to meet the child.

Airlines that still offer unaccompanied-minor service for connecting flights meet children at the gate and then escort them to their connecting flight.

Alaska, American and Delta will allow children between the ages of 5 to 7 to fly as unescorted minors only on nonstop flights. But they do provide unaccompanied-minor service on connecting flights for older children.

Many airlines will not book a child on the last flight out of the day and will proactively rebook children if weather threatens to disrupt schedules.
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Photo of child on plane courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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