Heroic Stranger On Southwest Airlines Steps Up, Thwarts Creepy Encounter On 10 Year Old’s Solo Flight

A mother shared that her 10 year old son flew Southwest Airlines on Sunday as an unaccompanied minor. Her son sat in a window seat. A woman was in the aisle. And a creepy man chose to sit between them.

The woman objected and took the middle herself. The man sat down in the aisle, and tried to chat the boy up across her, even passing the kid his phone number. The woman in the aisle flagged down crew, who had police meet the plane on arrival.

A very large, seemingly unwashed man boarded after and attempted to sit next to my son, in the middle seat. The woman sitting in the aisle seat said no and moved over to the middle seat between my child and this man, but that didn’t stop the man from starting up a conversation with my son, asking him questions and he gave my child a phone number, saying it was the phone number of his own child. The woman alerted the flight crew, who called for the police to meet the plane at the gate.

The mom was waiting at the gate for her son’s arrival and saw police officers show up. A Southwest Airlines manager came over to explain the situation. A flight attendant off the flight came over to speak to her too, sharing that she thinks the man “noticed [the child’s] unaccompanied minor lanyard and thought he would be an easy target.”

The mother has nothing but great things to say about the kind passenger in the aisle who interceded and Southwest Airlines crew, who moved the boy to another seat (he was apparently none the wiser to the whole situation).

The world is full of creeps and strange people. Airworld is, as well, where every one of them is thrown together with every one of us inside a metal tub. With kids, though, we often tell them not to talk to strangers but here they’re forced to sit right next to strangers.

Unaccompanied minor incidents have been seemingly on the rise, though it may be that they’re just more noticed now. Spirit Airlines made international news by sending a 6 year old first time flyer to the wrong airport while his family panicked.

But what was the family doing sending a 6 year old off alone, as an unaccompanied minor in the first place? Spirit Airlines messed up, but I bet they also regretted offering the service in the first place. Other incidents include,

Unaccompanied minor service varies by airline, but in general expect that:

  • Children 5-14 years old flying solo have to be registered as unaccompanied minors, where airline staff escort them to the plane and meet the guardian picking them up on the other side. (The escort service is optional for children 15-17).

  • For $150 each way (no matter how many siblings are traveling together) unaccompanied minors get:

    • early boarding
    • a kids-only room in hub airports to wait for connections (children under 8 must fly non-stop)
    • escort to the gate and to meet the designated adult at their destination

They aren’t really going to be watched non-stop. Flight attendants have other jobs to do. They’re going to be seated next to random other passengers. Some people on planes are problematic.

Specific numbers of unaccompanied minors aren’t disclosed by major airlines, so we can’t get exact revenue figures. However they certainly earn millions of dollars in unaccompanied minor fees, but not multiple tens of millions of dollars. In other words, it’s immaterial to their overall financials. And managing the program is costly, cumbersome, and carries significant public relations downsides.

There are no specific federal regulations I’m aware of regarding unaccompanied minor services. I’ve been unable to unearth a specific DOT or FAA rulemaking. And airlines aren’t required to offer the service as far as I can tell. Allegiant, for instance, does not offer unaccompanied minor services. Neither does Breeze or Avelo.

Should an airline actually have to take responsibility for children traveling alone at such a young age? Should a parent putting a 6 year old on a plane by themselves waive any right to sue the airline? Isn’t whatever happens to their child kind of on them? I wonder why airlines offer the service at all, though perhaps they’d want to offer it to their best customers only.

  • Accepting unaccompanied minors, perhaps under 8, may be a bad idea if you’re an airline? Many kids can travel solo at 12.
  • These programs are probably more trouble than they’re worth.
  • Given that it can be $300 roundtrip to send them alone, if you think they cannot travel solo, then consider traveling with them and dropping them off.

My parents divorced when I was 3. My dad lived in California, and I lived with my mother in New York. I flew to the West Coast often. At first my father would fly from LA to New York to pick me up – a ‘straight turn’ that made for an incredibly long day. I think he did this until I was 8 years old. I remember flying as an unaccompanied minor when I was 11. Somewhere between those ages I started traveling alone.

Some best practices, which wouldn’t have helped the 10 year old on Southwest or his mom:

  • Avoid sending kids on connecting flights, even where it’s allowed.
  • And avoid sending them on the last flight of the day, or connecting into it.
  • Make sure to stay with them at the gate until they board the aircraft. You should leave them before they are on board. Get a gate pass! Even buy a refundable ticket for a later flight and refund it once they’re on the plane if need be.
  • Meet them at the gate when the aircraft arrives. Get a gate pass! Even buy a refundable ticket for a later flight and refund it once they’re on the plane if need be.

Don’t send kids on their own that cannot entertain themselves, or whose behavior is questionable. Give them a cell phone to use, even with prepaid service, if you can. And give them some cash for snacks if possible.

And bear in mind that with often a $150 fee each way, unaccompanied minor costs are generally a savings compared to two roundtrips accompanying a child but maybe not as much of a savings as you think. The service is more saving you time. But think about it this way. By the time your child is 18, you’ll have spent the vast majority of the time you’ll ever spend with them in their lifetime. Maybe it’s an opportunity to spend just a little bit more, in fact, at a time where it’s tough for even a budding teenager to ignore you. They’re stuck with you!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The good woman ought to have told a Marine to give the creep an upper-cut in the groin . That’ll teach him a lesson .

  2. Good for the woman in the middle. I would hope that a lot of other passengers would also come to the minor’s aid in a similar situation. Mostly I don’t have an objection to Southwest Airlines boarding procedure but this is one case where it is problematic. From having men seated in the same row on USA airplanes and women seated in the same row, too, I think that the USA airlines purposely do that. I do not see that situation on Asian airlines. I would suppose with assigned seating, USA airlines purposely do not seat unaccompanied minors next to men.

  3. @jns
    Sadly, there are plenty of incidents of women creeps too, when it comes to minors.

  4. In any system there’s a failure rate. I wonder what the percentage of such incidents are relative to all unaccompanied minors flights? I would guess it’s minuscule. I think it’s a great learning experience for kids, otherwise, a great confidence builder.

  5. As I recall from my airline days, it was not allowed to put UMNR’s on the last flight scheduled for the day. I hope that’s still the case.
    I don’t think a parent waiver of the right to sue the airline in case of trouble is a good idea. That would likely cause airlines to be less vigilant. (Cue the usual conservative response. Eyeroll.)

  6. What crime was the man charged with?Presumed child molestation? Criminal telephonic rape? I agree it’s creepy but the police can do nothing. The most you can do is move the boy or the man.

  7. parents always should buy a ticket and accompany the child anywhere they fly,
    is it really worth taking a chance? especially now a days. Spend the extra money and
    return back to where you started on the next flight.. be responsible.

  8. SWA should award the woman pax who saved the day(and SWA from a big legal wrangle) two round trip tickets to anywhere they fly.
    UMs should be placed next to a woman or together. But SWA’s free for all boarding policy is an obstacle to that.

  9. This (Reddit) story does not make sense.

    The woman was able to tell this guy was some sort of threat just by looking at him before he sat down? Were there lots of aisle and window seats still available, and this guy chose to sit next to the kid? Or were the aisle and window seats filled and this middle seat was towards the front of the plane so a sensible place to sit. Not to mention the kid probably did not spill into the middle seat, making that middle seat better than most.

    And the police came because of what crime? Talking to a kid? Giving the kid his phone number (but not asking for the kids number.)

    We have no indication that the kid had any complaints – everything is through the eyes of the all-knowing woman who moved to the middle seat because she could tell the guy was a threat before he sat down.

    As a kid riding public transit at that age I certainly encountered eccentric people that spoke to me, as did my kids on their way to and from school. It was unpleasant, but that’s how things are out in the world. Of course it is worse on a plane because you can’t just get up and move.

  10. Gary…to quote you …” The world is full of creeps and strange people” and to quote me…”the lady who ran interference for the little boy proves the world is even fuller of very nice and wholesome people”

  11. I was thinking about this situation. The male trying to sit next to the minor probably scoped out the situation at the gate so he could be slightly behind the minor and have an opportunity to sit in the next seat. If there was a video of the boarding line, it would be interesting to see of that was the case. I agree with David R. Miller on the answer.

  12. No it’s not on the parents. The service is offered and airlines spell out that they WILL be responsible for a child on a flight. They charge a rather large fee for the service.

    If you pay for any other service, is it on you for choosing that service? What an incredibly “don’t know whose fault it is, but it certainly isn’t mine” attitude.

  13. In your “best practices” 4 bullet points section – in the third bullet point I believe you meant “You should *not* leave your child…” instead of “you should…”

  14. Southwest could just board unaccompanied minors first, yes? A flight attendant could take them to a seat close to the galley so they can keep an eye on them?

  15. The unaccompanied minor process is such a huge liability I’m not sure it’s even worth the fees. That photo of the kid overnighting at Miami given a cot? That’s in their room where unaccompanied minors are kept during connections. Sending a UM to a hotel for the night is such a mess… I’ve had to do that before, and had to post an employee all night long sitting outside their door (and I’ve had to do it as well, once when it was a male child – not even paid as a UM, sent on their own over a connection since we didn’t do connecting UMs as a rule – and my supervisor wouldn’t do it as he didn’t feel comfortable as a gay male given all the accusations people make even unfounded nowadays). Keeping the child in the airport in a secure room is probably best and safest. We had a UM get out once from a hotel room and walked across the street to an outlet mall. We as an airline or as employees didn’t sign up for having to control your child when you violated our policy by sending a minor (like a 14 year old) on a connecting flight and we legally could have either just said “not our problem” or called social services.

    Half the time parents wouldn’t even be on time to pick up their child. Or a child would arrive on a redeye from the west coast, no parent there…. call the parent… “I am at work until 4 and then I’ll come by.” No, this isn’t a daycare, my next call is to the police.

    Same with a child taking off their lanyard, refusing to follow directions, and escaping off the plane on their own. The crew can’t necessarily see… (me as a 200 lb adult has done testing with TSA and slipped past gate agents onto planes multiple times).

    Frontier finally threw up its hands and said they aren’t dealing with it anymore, no matter the revenue opportunity. Too much chance for things to go wrong, and 95% of the time it’s the parents or the child doing something they aren’t supposed to that makes the experience go awry.

    In this case, good on the female passenger and good on the Southwest crew handling this well. I wonder how WN handles it, but at my last airline, the UM had to sit in the last row by the galley, which was otherwise unoccupied unless the flight was full.

  16. Years ago I sat next to a rather young unaccompanied minor. I think there might have been an issue with weather and spending the night or maybe very long delays but whatever the circumstance, I asked the boy what he had eaten and it turned out he really had had nothing since the previous day. It was kind of late in the day and I rang the stewardess and explained the situation. She took the boy up to first class and then she came back and let me know she got him a meal and offered me a free drink in thanks! I like to think that most people would look out for someone young flying on their own.

  17. “But what was the family doing sending a 6 year old off alone, as an unaccompanied minor in the first place?”

    I did that at 6 in 1965 on Piedmont. LEX to HHH with a change somewhere, maybe BNA. Both ways. I distinctly remember a flight attendant banging on the underbelly of the second plane to get them to lower the steps to let me on.

    Still amazes me they’d allow that.

    Of course, back then if some creep tried one on, a bystander would beat him to death on the spot and no one would object.

  18. I have a 10 year old flying nonstop from Lisbon to EWR. The airline is supposed to take him off the plane, through passport control and baggage claim, and meet me landside. I can’t figure how I could do this myself. Does anybody know if it can be done?

  19. @Tizzette – You can’t do it yourself because your 10 year old isn’t technically in the United States until exiting border formalities. You cannot interact directly with anybody who isn’t yet cleared by US CBP.

  20. @Tizzette, if it were me, I would fly there and bring the child back with me. I did a similar thing when I flew NW from LAX-BKK and took the flight back six hours later with my wife who spoke only Thai and Lao. I told the story to my Brazilian born former colleague and boss so he did the same thing bringing his wife from Brazil last year (she only spoke Brazilian Portuguese).Yes, flying takes time and money but you are there in case anything breaks down. I hope the plans you have work out.

  21. “The woman in the aisle” didn’t flag down the FA, the woman in the middle did. (Insert nit-picky grin)

  22. In one country, it is illegal to buy a ticket just to get into the gate area.

    If only women can sit next to unaccompanied kids, there should be special fares to men
    as a class action lawsuit

  23. I call BS on this. First an UM are sat in the first row on SW due to open seating. Who talks over people on a plane. Giving a cell number is not illegal. Putting anyone next to a minor is risky. Jail s are full of men women and kids who hurt kids. Parents also hurt their own kids so can not trust them either.

    If the lady does not like the cot her kid slept on then she should have had her butler get him some thing better

  24. I’m glad I was an unaccompanied minor during the 80s and 90s, when airlines weren’t like Greyhounds. No bad experiences and nothing but kindness from flight attendants. Weirdest thing that ever happened to me was some lady trying to recruit me into her cult. (“You’d make a great member of The Path!” or whatever it was.)

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