Once a month, my two daughters hop on a plane without me and fly from Northern California down to Southern California to visit their father. I was nervous about this arrangement at first, as my girls have always flown under my protective wing.  But since I make sure they get on the plane and the flights are always nonstop, there’s very little chance that they will get lost 10,000 or so feet up in the air. It’s a short flight, too.  A little more than an hour, which sure beats the eight-hour car drive any day.

I consider my kids, who are 16 and 12, “unaccompanied minors” because they aren’t traveling with me, a card-carrying adult.  But most airlines view my teenager as being old enough to travel alone, so technically, the 12-year-old is with an adult.  A flighty, easily distracted one with an iPod permanently stuck in her ear, but an adult traveler, nevertheless.

A few years ago, I probably would have been very nervous about my unaccompanied minors traveling all by themselves.  But it happens all the time.  According to an MSNBC report, millions of children between the ages of 5 and 14 fly alone every year on major airlines. Most of these  “unaccompanied minors (UMs)” are the fallout from shared custody issues.  Kyle McCarthy, founder of the Family Travel Forum, calls UM travel “a necessary evil.”

One authority at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, says it’s heartbreaking to watch these young, frightened children board the plane alone, crying the whole time because they’re scared to fly without mom or dad.

But when long-distance visitation is court-ordered, what choice do you have?  If you’re in a shared-custody arrangement that requires your minor children to fly by themselves, the U.S. Department of Transportation offers an online guide to help make the trip safer. Shirley Cress Dudley, blended family expert, has tips to reduce stress, especially around holiday travel.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Check airline policies on age, as each airline differs.  Generally, though, the Department of Transportation does not allow children under 5 to fly alone. Most airlines require kids to be 8 before they can be booked on connecting flights. Airline policies also differ on when kids age out of the unaccompanied-minor status. Some say it’s 12; others peg it at 15.
  • Book nonstop flights whenever possible. The next-best options are direct flights that may stop, but won’t require changing planes. Or, book connecting flights on the same airline.
  • Book flights that depart early in the day, as they are less likely to be cancelled or delayed. Most airlines don’t like UMs flying on the last flight of the day because if the child misses that connection, there’s no one to watch over them during the night.
  • See your child to the gate to make sure he or she gets on the right flight. Many airlines will give gate passes to unticketed parents for this very reason.
  • Give your child a card that has the flight number and destination written on it, and rehearse it with him. Most airlines announce the destination before takeoff, so tell your child to listen for it to make sure he is on the right plane.
  • Give your child a pre-programmed cell phone with your number and the number of the person who is picking her up. You must provide the airline with the name and number of the adult meeting them at the destination and they should be reachable by cell phone throughout the day.

Other than that, just give them a big hug and a kiss, and wish them a happy, safe trip. Tell them you can’t wait to see them again, which is oh-so-true.  I breathe HUGE sighs of relief when I see my daughters walking out of the gangway toward me, laughing and giggling, usually. The iPod still stuck in my teenager’s ear.