It takes a certain level of comfort and confidence to purchase an airline ticket for your child and feel they are capable of flying alone. They are on their own for the duration of the flight, expected to fend for themselves without your supervision or guidance, and know what to do in case of emergency. They are basically taking the first step into travel independence. It’s not supposed to be complicated. They arrive at the plane, they’re acknowledged and escorted by caring flight attendants, and greeted at the destination gate by a loving familiar face, but sometimes that’s not what happens.

Miserable Experience

Photo credit: Kirsten Maxwell – Teaching Traveling Mom

In our family, each child flies to visit their grandparents to celebrate their 11th birthday. It is a right of passage if you will, a statement of independence, and an opportunity for them to be spoiled rotten. Two years ago, our oldest child was the first to travel as an unaccompanied minor (UM as the airlines refer to them) and the trip was seamless.

When I told friends how excited I was for our middle son to have his turn, I did receive some concerned remarks and sideways glances. Our children are fairly well traveled so I never even thought about traveling as an unaccompanied minor being an issue. My kids know how to board a plane, find their seats, ask politely for drinks, not to kick the seats, etc. In other words, they know the routine.

What Happened When We Checked In

My son only had his carry on backpack so we did not have to check bags. I went straight to the ticket counter to get my gate pass (you need one of these to accompany them to their flight). I inquired about giving my child a credit card for purchasing food or beverages since they do not allow cash on board. I was told he would not be able to purchase anything and my best bet was to buy something once we were past security. Thankfully, I had packed some snacks, but the best tip came from the guy next to me in line. He suggested buying a pre-paid credit card to give him the next time he travels. Genius!! Note: Frontier Airlines does not offer any beverages on their flights except water. Everything else needs to be purchased.

What Frontier Airlines Could Have Done Better

When a minor is traveling on their own, they should offer them drinks and snacks. When my older son flew a different airline he was given a drink and cookies! Make the kids feel comfortable. They are nervous and may be hungry too. My kid does not have a credit card at age 10. You would not let me pay for snacks in advance and add it as a note to his ticket (I asked). Be creative if you want to have my return business.

What Happened at the Gate

What You Can Learn from Our Miserable Experience-Kids Are A Trip

Photo credit: Kirsten Maxwell – Teaching Traveling Mom

I was told by the desk agent to check in once I reached the gate and tell them I had an unaccompanied minor. I walked up to the agent who promptly dismissed me and said to return in ten minutes when they would begin check in for the flight. I returned, only to be told (by the same young man) that my son would be walked onto the flight by an attendant once the boarding process began. When my son’s boarding group was called, we walked up to the gate and this same young man told me they would have someone accompany my son onto the plane. I walked back to the ticket counter where five employees were standing around having a chat. I asked if one of them would walk my son onto the plane and that was the first time I was told that unaccompanied minors have to board last. Thank you for finally telling me.

What Frontier Airlines Could Have Done Better

While it is obvious the communication is lacking, other airlines make an attempt to check in unaccompanied minors and provide them with a neck lanyard to carry all of their travel documents. They also assign a designated staff member to accompany the child and that person actually introduces themselves to the parent and asks if there are any questions. It goes a long way in making parents feel comfortable.

The Wheels Start to Come Off on the Return Flight

First of all, my parents deserve a gold medal in patience. They arrived at the airport two hours prior to departure time for my son’s return flight. I have to admit, I was concerned when I booked the ticket, because it was the last flight of the day (7:00 p.m.) and there was that “What if?” in the back of my mind. That should have been a warning.
The flight looked dire when the gate agents announced an “electrical problem” and the pilots de-planed. A bit after 7, they decided to start boarding everyone. My father (having heard about Frontier’s hijinks from me and seeing the gate chaos) decided to make a break for it and sprinted to the front of the line demanding that my son be boarded first. Surprisingly, the Frontier staff agreed to do so. Here’s where it backfires.
My son spent the next two hours sitting on the plane at the gate while the airline figured out an electrical maintenance issue. Something to do with the air conditioning (we were told), but nervous mom that I am, I couldn’t stop thinking about rioting passengers hurling obscenities while my innocent child sat captive on the plane (just kidding, I think).
The plane finally departed at 9:00 pm (10:00 CST) and the pleasant woman at the ticket counter (the one nice person that we encountered in all this madness), tells my parents that everything has settled down and they can be on their way.

Problems on the Home Front

The flight isn’t scheduled to arrive in Chicago until 12:40 a.m. and as I’m sitting on the couch deciding when to leave I start to panic. How will I get a gate pass if all of the ticket counters are closed? I call Frontier. They give me two phone numbers for Frontier Airlines at O’Hare Airport. One is baggage claim (useless), the other is an endless maze of automated information for every O’Hare airlines except for Frontier. I hang up and speed off to the airport, leaving my husband to try and find an answer.
My husband meets with resistance. Obstinate operators asked him repeatedly for the flight and confirmation number while refusing to answer his question, “Will there be someone at the airport to give my wife a gate pass?” Finally, he was assured there would be someone to greet me. By this time I am at the airport and I can answer the question myself. The counter is deserted. I am told by the lovely gentleman at Alaska Air that I am out of luck and I will need to wait at baggage claim. I ask if I can sweet talk TSA. He says “no”, but I try anyway. The TSA guy says I am out of luck and maybe next time I should let my son have a phone. Thanks, that’s helpful.

What Frontier Airlines Could Have Done Better

This is really a loaded question. First of all, never send minors on the last flight of the day. Make all of your UMs fly on the first flight, so if there are delays, you can properly deal with re-routing or finding alternative flights.
Second, train your staff to tell people when they book their tickets, when they drop off their UMs, whenever, that the ticket counter closes at x o’clock and they need to be there by a certain time to pick up a gate pass. No one told me this despite numerous opportunities to do so.

Third, find someone to operate your phone lines that actually knows what is going on. Better yet, train your staff in customer service. They could use it.

My Son’s Opinion of the Entire Process

First of all, my son was well prepared for what to expect. We chose his seats on the Frontier Airlines website, I showed him the seat location on the plane, I explained the plane layout, we looked at the route, and discussed the weather. He was horribly confused by the fact that Frontier changed his seat on both legs and sat him in the back row without explanation. He was unable to recline (yes, I know that’s a luxury) and he sat next to the bathroom (where he heard the toilet flush every single time). His summary: “They lack efficiency and can’t seem to get things done. I would never want to fly them again.”

All’s Wells that Ends Well I Guess

The good news is that my son finally arrived at 1 a.m. the day after he was due to arrive. One of the staff members escorted him to baggage claim where I was waiting. He was tired and clearly as miserable as dear old mom. I had sent a tweet to Frontier about my dilemma and never received an apology, just excuses and a $25 credit to be used in the next 90 days for my son only. You can read the tweet thread here:

Tweet Thread Frontier-Kids Are A Trip

Photo credit: Kirsten Maxwell – Teaching Traveling Mom

I don’t even know what to say to this. No apologies, just stating the facts (which I already knew thank you very much). In the end, the lesson we learned was: You get what you pay for. We paid a little less than other airlines for an Unaccompanied Minor fee, but the headaches that went along with it were not worth it. Next time our business will go elsewhere.
If you want to see the airlines Traveling Moms recommend to their friends, check out TravelingMom’s List of the Least Worst U.S. Airlines or our recommendations for airlines that have kid friendly features.

Have any airline stories to share? We would love to hear them!