Very quietly, just before the Christmas holiday last year, United Airlines changed its unaccompanied minors policy. Previously, United only required children age 11 and under and younger traveling without an adult to pay an additional fee; in 2012 when I booked unaccompanied minor status for my tweens, then ages 10 and 12, for a plane trip from Denver to Boston, I paid one $198 fee total round-trip for the pair of them (plus the regular airfare).
Now, United requires all children ages 5 to 15 to pay a $150 fee one way, on top of the regular fare, for unaccompanied minor status. Indeed, United wants to charge me an additional $150 one way ($300 round trip!) for my well-traveled, mature 14-year-old son who will be traveling with his 16-year-old sister on a nonstop flight from Denver to Boston this summer.
Oh. Hell. No.
My son has been traveling by plane multiple times annually since he was an infant. He will be accompanied by his responsible 16-year-old sister — who is not young enough to be forced into unaccompanied minor status, but apparently not old enough to be a legal guardian during the plane ride (aka United Airlines’ no-man’s land of age). My teens are traveling on a nonstop flight between two major airports and are perfectly capable of walking themselves from the security line at Denver International Airport (where I’d drop them off) to their gate. They both travel with cell phones. They can negotiate their way together from the gate at Boston’s Logan International Airport to baggage claim, where they’ll meet their grandmother (and if they get lost, I’ve taught them well enough to be able to identify and ask an airport employee to point the way).
My 14-year-old does not need these services (as outlined on the United Airlines unaccompanied minors policy FAQ) from flight attendants, who will supposedly:
- Personally greet your child
- Introduce your child to the cockpit, time permitting
- Take your child to their seat and assist with carry-on items
- Orient your child to the safety features of the aircraft
- Point out lavatory locations
I’m pretty sure my six-foot-three-inch 14-year-old can reach the overhead bins more easily than a petite flight attendant, and he’s been on enough planes that he knows darn well where to find the bathrooms!
Now I understand that some 14-year-old kids might need some extra TLC. Perhaps if my 14-year-old were traveling all by himself and had a connection, I might be slightly more willing to pay the $150 to help ensure he’d get additional, focused care from airline employees — just in case there were a canceled flight and/or he needed to stay overnight in an airport hotel due to delays. But, here’s the rub: United Airlines doesn’t even offer unaccompanied minor status to children who need connecting flights. It’s nonstop flights only! Paying $150 to have a flight attendant point out the airplane bathrooms and an airline employee walk my kid(s) to arrivals to meet their grandma is outrageous. (Oh, wait. For my $150, my child would also get one complimentary food item onboard.) At best, that service might be worth $50.
I also understand there could be a (rare) diversion of this nonstop flight to another airport if there were weather problems in Boston. And, sure, there might be some sort of emergency in the air. But…
Would paying a $150 unaccompanied-minor fee for my teen truly guarantee a flight attendant would watch out for him during some horrible in-air catastrophe during which flight attendants are responsible for all of the of passengers? It’s not like flight attendants (or gate agents) get any extra stipend or bonus for supervising unaccompanied minors; they’re just paid their regular wages regardless of whether they have six minors in their care or zero. Wouldn’t flight attendants focus attention on an elderly couple who couldn’t make their way quickly to an emergency exit, versus my tall, athletic teen who could reach the exit in a matter of a few steps?
To me, the new policy just makes no sense. To go from requiring children age 11 to have (and pay for) unaccompanied minor status to age 15 is a huge, unnecessary jump.
My colleague Beth Blair, a former flight attendant, makes a great point: “Unless a teen has some kind of special need there’s no reason for that fee. Here’s how I look at it:If a child is old enough to babysit, he or she is responsible enough to fly alone without being monitored.”
Mind you, in some states, children who are 15 are allowed to drive a car. (ETA: One of my Facebook friends pointed out, after reading this piece, that 15-year-olds can get pilot’s licenses and fly planes!) But they are not allowed to fly alone on a nonstop with United Airlines. Nuts!
My guess is that United jacked up the price of the unaccompanied minors fee, and upped the age limit, because the airline had lost too many children over the years. (See this story, too.) The airline needs to cover its butt. Or it just wants to make money by gouging parents of teens with this outrageous fee. Or it simply doesn’t want to have unaccompanied minors on its flights, period, so the airline makes it as uncomfortable as possible for families to book their children alone.
Thankfully, other airlines have not fully followed suit with this asinine policy of requiring children ages 5-15 to pay $150 one way for unaccompanied minor status:
- American Airlines allows children ages 2-14 to travel as an “accompanied minor” with a 16-year-old.
- Delta Air Lines requires all children ages 5-14 to have unaccompanied minor status, though it does allow for some connecting flights. (Not helpful for my 14-year-old; note to self.)
- Alaska Airlines requires children ages 5-12 to travel as unaccompanied minors, for a $25 or $50, depending on if connecting flights are involved.
- Frontier Airlines allows children ages 5-14 to travel with someone as young as 15 years old without any unaccompanied minor fee.
- Southwest Airlines allows children ages 5-11 to travel with another child age 12 or older without having to pay an unaccompanied minor fee. Its unaccompanied minor fee for children ages 5-11 is a reasonable $50 each way.
I think United Airlines needs to loosen its unaccompanied minors policy. Lopping my mature, well-traveled, strong and athletic high school freshman into a one-size-fits-all policy with never-before-traveled 5-year-old kindergartner is utterly absurd. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds should be able to travel with older siblings without having to pay a fee. It should be up to parents to decide on the maturity level of young teenagers and whether or not they need that extra care. (Recall, my daughter was 12 years old and didn’t need unaccompanied minor status on United four years ago–but I paid the fee anyway for peace of mind.) And the fee for unaccompanied minors should definitely not be a ridiculously high $150 for a one-way flight — whether that flight is just over an hour long from San Francisco to LAX or five hours long from Seattle to New York.
As for me and my teens’ travel plans, I chose to spend my travel dollars elsewhere. Though I have long been a United customer (I have two MileagePlus credit cards, and frequently fly the airlines since it’s basically the only game in town from my small Colorado mountain airports to its Denver hub), I refuse to pay this $150 one-way fee for my kid’s flight this summer. My teens are now booked on nonstop Southwest Airlines flights for the regular fare — no unaccompanied minor fee necessary. Even better, I’m glad we shopped around: The standard DEN-BOS fares were cheaper on Southwest anyway, saving us $100 on top of not having to pay the ridiculous $300 round-trip extra fee for my 14-year-old son.
And you can bet that I won’t book my son on a solo flight on United next summer either — unless the airlines smartly changes its policy and allows 15-year-olds to fly solo for no additional fee.
What do you think? Sound off! Am I being unnecessarily annoyed by this United Airlines unaccompanied minors fee? Would you pay it for your young teen?