Nearly 16,000 youngsters without their parents or a supervising adult traveled through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last year on Delta Air Lines, the airport’s dominant carrier.
The Atlanta-based airline has a checklist of procedures in place to ensure that the children, known in industry parlance as “unaccompanied minors,” are safe while traversing the skies solo. Other airlines do, too.
But recent media reports detailing traumatized or waylaid youngsters flying on various airlines here and elsewhere have prompted the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) to begin a new, and distinct, conversation: Should the airport do more to tend to these kids?
“It’s an ongoing discussion,” said MAC Chairman Daniel Boivin. “It’s the ultimate customer service issue, taking care of our kids.”
The MAC, which owns and operates the airport, recently asked Delta representatives for a briefing on the airline’s rules for unaccompanied children. This came after a story circulated about a traumatized 8-year-old child who was flying on Delta from New York to California in June, connecting through MSP. She was reportedly separated from her parents who arrived illegally at the southern border, and was being reunited with family on the West Coast.
“She did not speak English and was crying, but thankfully, a passenger on board was able to translate for her and help her feel comfortable,” MAC Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben wrote in an e-mail. “She did not understand where she was, the passenger that translated for her showed her on a map where [New York, Minnesota and California] were.”
Delta spokeswoman Lisa Hanna said she had “not heard of this particular child.”
A second incident in July drew national media attention and involved two unaccompanied children, ages 9 and 7, flying from Des Moines to Orlando on Frontier Airlines. The flight diverted to Atlanta because of severe weather, and the children were taken to a hotel by a Frontier employee. Their parents were panic-stricken, according to media reports.
But Frontier spokesman Jonathan Freed said that if something unexpected happens to a flight, airline representatives attend to traveling children, and parents are apprised of their status. Sometimes, children are fed and stay in a hotel while supervised by a Frontier rep until their flight arrangements are worked out, he said.
Airline regulations for unaccompanied minors are a hodgepodge of rules with no uniform standards, said Alan Armstrong, an Atlanta-based aviation attorney.
“There are no federal aviation regulations dealing with the carriage, transportation or care of unaccompanied minors on airlines,” he said. “I believe the recent incidents we have seen with issues surrounding unaccompanied minors on airlines suggests the [Federal Aviation Administration] needs to re-examine this vacuum.”
Delta allows children ages 5 to 14 to fly as unaccompanied minors — it’s optional for those 15 to 17.
A parent or responsible adult accompanies the child to and from the gate. If the flight has a connection — common at MSP — uniformed employees ensure the child makes it to the appropriate gate.
The airline charges an additional $150 each way for the service, beyond the price of an adult ticket.
Delta provides kids with wristbands with a bar code that is scanned during the trip, and a special Sky Zone room at MSP is equipped with games and treats for layovers. A new SkyPro smartphone app used by Delta flight attendants is equipped with Google Translate and shows where unaccompanied minors are sitting on the aircraft.
While Boivin, of MAC, is satisfied with this system, he wonders: How does it work with other airlines serving Minneapolis-St. Paul?
Delta accounts for about 73 percent of the flights serving the airport, with American second at 6 percent, followed by Sun Country, United, Southwest and Spirit.
“My concern is with these other airlines, [MSP] is not their hub, they’re not connecting,” Boivin said. “Things happen, things break down, there could be a winter storm and somebody gets stuck somewhere.
“That’s where I try to figure out where the airport can help out,” he added. “We’ve got to make sure, whether it’s the [airport] foundation or police, that there’s some backup if something goes awry.”
Sun Country, based in Eagan, does not permit unaccompanied minors.
“It is a complicated program that requires special procedures, records and training,” spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said. As a small airline, Sun Country is focused on “simplifying our product and offering a great customer experience at an affordable price,” she said.
Part of the challenge is that airports don’t know any details about unaccompanied minors, due to privacy concerns.
“Airlines have full responsibility for the kids legally,” said Jana Webster, executive director of the Minneapolis Airport Foundation, which occasionally fields requests from groups to help navigate the airport.
“We have this really robust volunteer program at MSP,” Webster said. “We have stepped in to help during unusual circumstances, but kids are a really special classification and we’re pretty careful not to intercede unless we have to.”
Airlines don’t know why a child is flying solo, either.
But most major airlines objected in June to carrying immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. Shortly after that declaration, President Donald Trump reversed course and ended that practice.
“We certainly hope we did not transport any child that was separated from his or her family,” said Delta’s Hanna. But airlines don’t know the intention of travelers when tickets are booked.
“Our understanding is that an estimated 80 to 90 percent of children booked aboard U.S. carriers were being reunited with family members,” she said.