An unaccompanied minor found himself in the headlines recently when US budget carrier Spirit Airlines flew him to the wrong destination. Instead of Fort Myers, the six-year-old ended up at Orlando. Same state – Florida – but 240km north of where his grandmother was waiting for him.

The mistake was corrected in quick time, but considering the number of children who fly as unaccompanied minors, it’s surprising how efficiently the system works.

Who qualifies as an unaccompanied minor?

An unaccompanied minor is a child travelling without their parent, guardian or an adult relative.

On Air New Zealand, children under 5 years cannot travel alone, and must travel with an adult 15 years or older, except for flights to and from Canada where the adult must be 16 years or older.

Children aged between 5 and 11 are eligible to travel alone on selected routes and must use an Airband, which is a special wristband which tracks where the young travellers are. At certain stages of travel, for example boarding a plane, a text message will be sent to up to five nominated contacts.

Those aged between 12 and 16 may travel alone or can use Airband at the parent or guardian’s request, on selected routes.

The fee for one-way domestic travel within New Zealand is $30, and $80 for international flights. Those fees jump to $45 and $120 respectively if booked at the airport.

Other airlines have slightly different policies. On KLM the system is mandatory for children aged 5-14 travelling unaccompanied but a child that age travelling in a different class from a parent must also register as an unaccompanied minor. The charge is between €100-150 (NZ$175-262) for direct flights, and €200-300 if there’s a flight transfer. The major US carriers require children aged 5-14 and travelling without a parent, guardian or adult to fly as unaccompanied minors. Ryanair doesn’t carry unaccompanied minors under 16 years, nor do some other budget carriers.

Jetstar restricts unaccompanied young people to 12 or over, according to its website. They must have a parent or guardian download, print, fill-in and sign a declaration form to give them permission to travel alone; and also be accompanied to the airport check-in counter by a parent or guardian who must show valid ID and present the signed declaration form to a Jetstar team member.

What’s the procedure for unaccompanied minors?

Air New Zealand advises that extra time will be needed at the Special Assistance counters to check children in. Staff will look at IDs, contact details and issue your child with an Airband. Make sure that the youngster has all the necessary travel documentation.

Some airports will let parents and guardians escort children to the departure gate. Where this is not possible, staff will escort your child through security and to the departure gate for handover to cabin crew.

During the flight, the option to select a child’s seat is unavailable for children travelling alone, and the youngster will be seated near crew work areas so they can easily be supervised during the flight. On landing, the child will be escorted through the arrivals process to collect any baggage and be handed over to the designated pick up person after ID is checked.

How do I know my child will be safe?

It’s a leap of faith, isn’t it? When you wave them off at the boarding gate and they disappear down the ramp, you’re entrusting them to the care of strangers. You’re hoping they’ll have a great flight, they won’t get scared or worried and that they’ll sit next to the world’s nicest grandmother but it’s out of your hands, and nagging thoughts might bubble away.

In 2001, British Airways instituted a policy banning adult male passengers from occupying a seat next to children under 15. Male passengers were asked to remove themselves from seats next to children. At the time the airline claimed it was simply responding to a request from customers but many men who were uprooted protested at the implicit assumption that they were a danger to the child for no other offence than being male. In 2010, after BA cabin crew forced a male passenger to change seats, the passenger sued the airline for sex discrimination, and costs and compensation were awarded to the complainant. In one of the more celebrated examples of overreach, a British Airways staff member attempted to separate Boris Johnson from his own children on a flight. Johnson hit back, accusing the airline of tarring the entire male population with the paedophile brush.

If all men are to be regarded as potential paedophiles, why stop there, critics began asking? Why not ban men from sitting next to unrelated children on other forms of public transport? And in theatres, stadiums, and why not ban adult males from swimming pool change rooms when there are unaccompanied male children present? Should men also be banned from teaching children? Faced with a festering problem, in 2016 British Airways announced the discontinuation of its unaccompanied minors service. From that time on, children under 13 years old have not been allowed to travel alone on BA flights.

Qantas, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia had instituted similar guidelines preventing unaccompanied minors from sitting beside unrelated adult males but all three have walked back on the policy. On its website, Qantas says “We’ll endeavour to seat Unaccompanied Minors together near Cabin Crew work areas… During the flight, we’ll regularly check on your child.” Air New Zealand now has a similar policy. According to Virgin Australia’s website “We try to seat Unaccompanied Minors together near the Cabin Crew work areas. We also aim to seat Unaccompanied Minors next to a vacant seat, however this will be determined on the day of travel.”

None of the US airlines have had policies that prevent unaccompanied minors from sitting next to unrelated males, and the US Department of Transportation prohibits airlines from implementing discriminatory seating policies based on gender, age or ethnicity.

– with Stuff