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WHEN KIDS FLY ALONE, NO PROBLEM IS MINOR

Having a flight canceled or missing a connection is tiring and frustrating for senior travelers. When it happens to their young grandchildren traveling alone to come for a visit, it is terrifying.

With more families than ever scattered across the country, hundreds of thousands of children and teen-agers board planes unaccompanied by adults. Airlines say that the number increases every year.

"A large percentage of them are visiting Grandma and Grandpa," says Julie Bishop, spokesman for Trans World Airlines.

Richard and Judy Randolph were nervous wrecks when the airline called to say their grandsons Eric, 16, and Mark, 11, had missed their connecting flight. The boys were traveling from their home in Amsterdam, N.Y., via Philadelphia to visit their grandparents in Florida over spring break.

Jeff Randolph, the boys' father, had decided for safety's sake to pay a $60 round-trip fee so the boys would be escorted from the aircraft in Philadelphia and onto the plane bound for Florida. He was told they also would be chaperoned during the layover between flights.

But it never happened.

When the boys checked their luggage at the ticket counter, Jeff filled out paperwork giving his and his parents' telephone numbers, designating his father as the person to pick them up and providing other information.

"I took them to the gate," Jeff says. "A flight attendant took them onto the plane. I stayed until the plane took off, then went to my appointments. My parents were to leave a message on my answering machine after they met the boys. I kept calling my machine but there was no message."

There was still no message well after the time the boys were to have arrived. Jeff called his parents. They weren't home.

Here's what had happened.

When the plane arrived in Philadelphia, neither the flight attendants nor anyone else from the airline escorted the boys off the plane. So after all the other passengers and crew had left, they disembarked and got something to eat. They returned to the same plane and sat in the same seats; nobody asked to see their boarding passes before they got back on.

Two people claimed the boys' seats, so they moved. Two more people claimed that second pair of seats. Finally, a flight attendant asked to see the boys' tickets. By that time, Eric and Mark had missed their connecting flight.

Rather than put the boys up in a hotel with an escort overnight, the airline bumped two passengers from the next Florida flight. Then they called the grandparents to let them know the boys would be arriving four hours later.

In another case, a short layover for a connecting flight stretched to six hours for a 9-year-old boy. His grandfather and parents only heard about it when the youngster called home four hours into the wait.

In an even more glaring example, an escort took a child, en route to visit his grandparents, to the gate of a connecting flight between Seattle and Albuquerque. But the escort left, and gate and flight attendants forgot to put him on board. His parents were given the choice of having the boy stay at a hotel with an airline employee, spend the night at the home of a customer service representative or board a 3:15 a.m. flight with yet another change of planes in Las Vegas.

His mother arranged for him to return to Seattle. "Would you permit your child to go to a hotel with a stranger?" the angry woman wrote to the airline's president.

Most airlines require that children must be at least 5 to travel alone. Through age 12, they must be escorted on and off planes and be handed over to a specified person who shows proper identification. Generally, youngsters 5 to 7 may travel only on direct or nonstop flights with no change of plane. An 8- to 11-year-old may be booked on connecting flights. The airline may charge a fee for the service. It is not required, but parents or guardians may arrange for an escort for kids 12 to 17.

Parents or guardians should find out the airline's policies on unaccompanied minors before making reservations. Ask all the "what if" questions. What if the flight is diverted because of bad weather? What if the child is stranded somewhere overnight because a flight is canceled? Grandparents -- or whoever is meeting the child -- also should know what to expect.

Never book a child or teen-ager on a connecting flight that is the last one out for the day. Get a seat assignment up front, or in another location easily observed by flight attendants.

Go over with the child what he should expect. A flight attendant or customer service representative should pre-board him and walk with him off the plane. If there is a connecting flight, an escort should take him to the new gate and stay with him while he waits. Some airlines provide centers with staff and activities at major hubs for unaccompanied minors with longer layovers.

Take the child to the airport ahead of time, especially if he is apprehensive, and walk him through what he should expect to have happen. Show him how to find and identify an airline staff member and ask for help if something doesn't seem to be going right. Also give him a prepaid phone card and teach him to use it, as well as how to make a collect call home or to his grandparents.

Arrive at the airport early so there is plenty of time to fill out forms at the ticket counter. Make sure the child will be wearing a badge, tag or something else to identify him as an unaccompanied minor.

Ask if there is a possibility that bad weather might divert or delay the plane. Some airlines forbid an unaccompanied child to board if there is, and will rebook the child on another day. Remain at the gate until the plane is in the air. Then stay by the phone until you are sure the child has arrived safely.

Decide in advance what to do if the child is stranded. You may want to have the child return home on the next flight rather than stay overnight.

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