The travel advisor: Flying unaccompanied

Delta airline plane (photo credit: REUTERS)
Delta airline plane
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Some of us have sent our children on flights as unaccompanied minors.
Many of us have seen them on flights.
Most of us are aware that such a policy exists.
In airline policy, an unaccompanied minor is an passenger between ages five and 14 years old without an adult. A parent or guardian who requests this service fills out a release form, identifying another parent or guardian who will pick up the minor at the destination airport. Airport personnel are responsible for escorting the child through immigrations and customs and boarding the flight in time. The fee will vary for this service determined both by the length of the flight and which airline is chosen.
During the flight, no special attention is given to the minor until the flight enters final descent to the destination. Throughout the flight, the unaccompanied minor is sat, if there are, with other children and sporadically a flight attendant will come through the cabin inquiring if anything is needed.
On descent, after clearing immigrations and customs, the child is released only to the adult identified on the paperwork.
Historically some airlines had controversial unaccompanied minor seating policies that discriminated against adult male passengers on the basis of gender. British Airways had a policy that staff was under instructions to keep men away from unaccompanied children whenever possible because of the danger of male pedophiles. This led to accusations that the airline considered all men to be potential pedophiles and women to be incapable of such abuse. After several public complaints, including a lawsuit successfully won against BA who defended the policy, BA changed its policy and began seating unaccompanied minors in a nondiscriminatory manner near the cabin crew.
Generally speaking up to age 11, one must use an airline’s unaccompanied minor service and pay the applicable service charge. From ages 12 to 17 it varies.
Delta Airlines for examples requires it on all Transatlantic flights until they are 15, American Airlines, United and El Al Israel Airlines permit it from age 12.
All offer the service only on nonstop flights. One cannot send an unaccompanied minor on any of the four North American airlines that fly between the US, Canada and Israel on any flight with a connection.
Plainly speaking if you want to send a child or grandchild, for example to or from Chicago as an unaccompanied minor, Air Canada, American, Delta and United will not accommodate you as they don’t fly nonstop. It can only be accomplished using a European airline who will shuttle your loved one from one plane to another in a European city.
Over the years parents’ decisions have ranged from lackadaisical to downright obsessive in selecting the airline. El Al remains the airline of choice for Israeli minors due to the ease of language as well as the feeling of heightened security it offers.
North Americans tend to choose based more on price having the luxury that their offspring are usually fluent in English. Wise consumers seek out first through friends or friends of friends who are on a specific plane to avoid paying the hefty service fee.
Imagine though you’re son is going into his final year of high school and is 17 years of age. Imagine that his plea to travel to New York from Tel Aviv originated at the last minute with a fervent desire to attend not one but two weddings in a very short time frame with little advance notice. Mendy’s mom was presented with such a dilemma. In all fairness, the decision to send him stemmed from the fact that they weren’t sure they were going to fund his trip as they didn’t deem it essential, but due to his insistence, his kind hearted mother acquiesced. She contacted her travel agent who in spite of little advance notice found him a seat on Turkish Airlines at an unbelievably good price. Expressing natural concern using an airline associated with a country’s president who does little to hide his anti-Semitism and disdain for all things Israeli, she was reassured by her travel consultant, that Turkish Airlines has a fantastic reputation both in terms of security and service and is one of the few airlines that fly to the United States (the others being Royal Jordanian and Aeroflot) that allow all of their passengers to checkin two bags for free.
The ticket was procured and a few days later Mendy and his older brother arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport. They asked security personnel where Turkish Airlines was located. Following the directions they arrived at the check-in booths, which had a sign directly above their heads, written in Hebrew, stating “Istanbul.” Both Mendy and his brother are fluent in both English and Hebrew and the lack of any sign showing Turkish Airlines did not enter their mind. After a few minutes in line, Mendy reached the counter, plopped over his Israeli passport and his first suitcase and was issued a boarding pass without any delay or questions. His internal excitement at flying solo to New York evaporated instantly when she informed him he would need to change airports in Istanbul since he was continuing to New York. Most fliers know of Istanbul’s main airport, Atatürk, but their second airport Sabiha Gökçen is being used more and more to deal with the dramatic increase of air passengers flying in and out of Istanbul.
Mendy’s calm tipped into hysteria when he called his mother, demanding to know why she had purchased him a ticket forcing him to change airports and actually travel alone in Turkey. She said undeniably that her travel consultant would never have issued him such a ticket. Mendy then turned to the clerk saying he had to check in his second suitcase to which she replied that there was a fee. Mendy asserted politely, that no; he was in fact told he was permitted two suitcases.
Tiring of this exchange, the ground attendant stated firmly she knew more than him and that he had to go to the cashier and pay for the second suitcase. Dismissing him in a manner that one waves a hand in front of a fly, Mendy meekly went over to the cashier. It was there that the gods took pity on him and his luck began to change.
The bored cashier took his passport and began leafing through the passenger list. It was as if time stood still as after a lengthy review, surprise, surprise they discovered that Mendy wasn’t on the passenger list. Calling everyone and anyone, the now enlightened cashier proudly informed Mendy that he was indeed not traveling on Pegasus Airlines to an airport in Istanbul that is hard to pronounce but he was actually a paid passenger on Turkish Airlines transiting via Istanbul’s main airport to JFK in New York.
Pegasus Airlines is a low cost airline headquartered in Istanbul. Originally created in partnership with the Irish carrier, Aer Lingus, it is now a completely Turkish company flying mainly throughout Europe and the Middle East. Quickly returning, he checked in on Turkish Airlines with his second suitcase.
His first suitcase was already in the belly of a Pegasus plane. He waited patiently while they tried to retrieve the suitcase until he heard the last call for his flight and reluctantly boarded the Turkish Air flight not knowing whether his suitcase was on board or not.
Both flights were uneventful, the transfer in Istanbul was a piece of cake and when he reached JFK, the only suitcase circling the carousel was the second suitcase he had personally checked in at the Turkish Air counter. Luck being a lady, the Pegasus suitcase was the one with his dress clothes.
Nobody called them to apologize; the haughty Pegasus ground attendant made no effort to explain her idiocy of accepting a travel document, perusing the list like a drunken sailor and handing Mendy a boarding pass for a flight not his own.
Keep in mind that if he hadn’t had to pay for a second checked suitcase, Mendy would have been a visitor to Istanbul’s airports. When first reported to his travel consultant it was met with incredulity. A quick call to Pegasus’s office in Tel Aviv confirmed the story; the ground attendant was being interrogated and an investigation was being started. No compensation has been given; his suitcase remains unfound.
There’s an urban myth circulated by most travel professionals and frequent fliers concerning international flights: No checked bag can be on a plane if the passenger is not on the aircraft. Internationally most airlines use what is known as PPBM, Positive Passenger Bag Match. This is a process by which the airline ensures that all checked bags on an aircraft have their respective owners also on-board. No passenger = no bag.
There is however some very minor exceptions the most glaring one is that the reverse can happen: An airline can decide to send a checked bag on a different aircraft to the same destination even when the passenger isn’t on the plane. This could be to a late arrival of the bag to the aircraft, or that the cargo hold was too full. In theory the bag should show up to the passengers’ final destination. Reality although differs.
In Mendy’s case, the Turkish Air ground crew at Ben-Gurion airport took the time to remove the suitcase from the Pegasus plane and automatically sent it to Istanbul, which is how it had originally been tagged. Unfortunately nobody bothered to tell Mendy that his bag was touring Istanbul and it took another three days until it was united with him in the Big Apple.
In conclusion, always double check you’re at the correct check-in counter and on the correct plane.
Never assume that the all-knowing airline ground staff is incapable making a mistake. That a 17-yearold boy was bamboozled by some haughty Pegasus official is inexcusable. I assure you of one thing – Mendy will never be fooled again.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments: