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Airlines may go the distance for kids flying solo

Editor's note: Today the St. Petersburg Times introduces a column offering a different view of air travel _ that of Elliott Hester, who has been a flight attendant for 16 years.

Trina, a 9-year-old traveling alone on my flight from Miami to New York, was the perfect passenger. Well-mannered, independent and mindful of her itinerary, she knew our plane was scheduled to arrive at 10 p.m., that her connecting flight would depart JFK at 11, and that an hour later the plane would land at Albany's airport, where her mother was waiting.

But Murphy's Law was in effect on that flight: a night cursed by a mechanical delay, marred by confusion and ending with Trina far away from home, sharing a hotel room with a stranger.

How could this have happened?

Many airlines allow children ages 5 to 11 to fly solo as long as parents pay an "escort fee," which can range from $30 to $60 each way, in addition to the price of a ticket. The fee provides limited in-flight supervision by flight attendants and an escort to connecting flights by airline personnel.

Having "supervised" hundreds of unaccompanied children over the years, I can honestly say that most are terrific. They watch movies, play with their own video games, occasionally hang out in the galley with the cabin crew. I've met 10-year-olds who have logged more miles than some people achieve in a lifetime.

As is the case with adult fliers, however, occasionally an unaccompanied child will misbehave. I have dealt with kids who cried uncontrollably, spat food on the window, kicked the back of seats and sprinted up the aisle as if it were a playground.

But, again, Trina was a dream, sitting quietly in her seat, drinking orange juice and staring out at the stars.

When the plane landed and passengers disembarked, however, chaos erupted outside the jetway to the terminal. Because of a mechanical delay in Miami, we had arrived almost an hour late.

An apologetic gate agent read a list of missed connections and offered hotel vouchers to stranded passengers. Angry fliers voiced their displeasure. The agent seemed on the brink of tears.

Realizing that Trina's connecting flight to Albany would be departing in minutes, Brenda, a member of my onboard crew, offered to escort her to the departure gate. The two had bonded on the airplane, and Brenda's maternal instincts kicked in when she saw that the agent was overwhelmed.

I agreed to watch Brenda's luggage while she and Trina hurried to a gate in another concourse. The remaining crew members boarded the usual courtesy van to our hotel.

After the bewildered gate agent processed the final hotel voucher, she gathered her belongings and disappeared. It was nearly 11:20. Our flight had been among the last to arrive at JFK.

When Brenda finally returned, I was shocked to see that Trina was with her. "The Albany flight left five minutes before we reached the gate," Brenda said. "The (gate) agent had already left."

Now the airport was all but deserted. We telephoned the flight service supervisor, but there was no recommended course of action.

Tired, frustrated and out of options, the three of us boarded a courtesy van for the crew's layover hotel.

After several attempts, Brenda finally reached Trina's mother by telephone. She assured the worried woman that Trina would be safe. And she was: She slept in the second bed in Brenda's hotel room. The next morning, we escorted Trina to an Albany flight. An hour later, mother and daughter were reunited.

As long as children fly solo, there are sure to be occasional mishaps. Two years ago, the parents of 9-year-old Kevin O'Brien spent a frantic afternoon searching for their son: Stormy weather had forced the cancellation of his LaGuardia-to-Richmond flight the night before.

After overnighting alone in a New York motel (monitored by an airline agent), he was placed on another flight. But for several hours, US Airways representatives could not tell the parents which flight their son was on, or even at which D.C.-area airport he would be landing.

In another incident, although the charges were disputed by Northwest Airlines, that carrier reached a confidential settlement in 1999 with the parents of a boy who was 6 years old when traveling by himself from Arizona to his home in Michigan in 1997. Due to a connecting-flight cancellation, the boy was placed in a Minneapolis hotel room with another unaccompanied minor, a 14-year-old boy.

The younger child claimed the next day that the older boy had molested him. Northwest reached a settlement and changed its policy to no longer place unrelated children in the same hotel room in the event of unscheduled stays.

According to the Air Transport Association, more than 7-million children ages 5 to 11 fly solo each year. Hundreds of thousands more ages 12 to 17 are enrolled in "unaccompanied child" programs. This means millions of dollars in extra fees for the airlines.

Though carriers will welcome your child with open arms, not all children are fit to fly alone. Know whether your child is mature enough to handle the trip. I've seen terrified children crying at the departure gate as their parents walked away.

Elliott Hester flies for a major U.S. carrier. His first book, Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet, will be published by St. Martin's Press in November.