The Strangest Airline Policy Ever Has a Deceptively Simple Explanation

Airline policies can be cumbersome, arcane, even byzantine.

One frequent flyer program who works for a major airline told me earlier this year that he finds himself in meetings with his colleagues, talking through how a change might work to the program, and he’ll find himself having to stop and have someone remind the group how things are structured to begin with. The programs can be too complicated for even the program’s own executives to understand.

But through an email exchange with Reid F., here’s one that I really struggled trying to puzzle through.

Effective with tickets purchased September 3, American adopted the US Airways unaccompanied minor policy. Children aged 12 through 14 traveling alone now have to travel as unaccompanied, at a cost of $150 each way. Previously the policy applied to children up through age 11.

This is consistent with Delta’s policy although the fee is higher than other airlines.

Here’s the strangest wrinkle.

Customers 16 years of age or older traveling alone may book travel online. Customers who are 15 and traveling alone must book travel by calling Reservations.

Fifteen year olds do not have to pay an unaccompanied minor fee. But I assumed they would have to pay a telephone booking fee. (Unless the 15 year old is also a 100,000 mile flyer).

And yet this all, actually, makes sense. I reached out to American to ask about the policy and a spokesman explained,

[I]t has to do with the way our website is programmed…15 year olds can’t accompany a younger passenger alone, so we don’t classify them as “adults” when booking. 16 year olds can accompany a younger child traveling alone, so the website allows a ticket to be purchased for them alone… [W]e ask people buying such tickets to call Reservations. We waive the phone reservation fee in those cases.

They only let ‘adults’ (who would be eligible to accompany a younger child) purchase tickets online. If a 15 year old could buy a ticket online, then the way their website is programmed a second passenger who was, say, 11 could be added to the reservation online. But American policy wouldn’t allow the 15 and 11 year olds to travel together unaccompanied. Rather than programming their website to allow 15 year olds to book online but not allow anyone younger to be part of the reservation, they require 15 year olds to book by phone.

But they do not impose a telephone booking fee for this as I had initially assumed.

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, 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. “One frequent flyer program who works for a major airline told me earlier this year that he finds himself in meetings with his colleagues”

    I had no idea FF programs were male

  2. This is insane. I flew ALL THE TIME by my self with my parents living in different cities across the country, as young as 11, even with connections (mostly through AA’s now-defunct RDU hub). I think if the parents think the kids are mature enough to travel without special assistance, the airline should respect that decision. A 14 year old could be in high-school – do you think that they can’t figure out how to get on and off a plane?

  3. @corey
    That’s fine in theory, until the kid decides to run off and do something on his own and misses his flight, which the parents will publicize as the airline losing their kid and then sue them.

  4. I still find the oddest policy, because it is common is that if you bring on a quart of hot coffee that will clearly cause problems if we have issues on takeoff, you can keep it. If the FA also gave you a plastic cup of water, that must be picked up before takeoff in case there are issues

  5. @Corey, I think you’re misunderstanding the point. An 11 year old (actually I think a 6year old) can fly by themselves. What the airline is saying is that a 15 year old can’t claim to be the accompanying adult of a minor child. This refers to all children 5 and under, who mush travel with an adult, as well as 6 to 15 who the airline should consider unaccompanied minors.
    So if you are 15 and travelling with your 11 year old sibling, you both must travel as unaccompanied minors, even if you’re technically together. The airline would be responsible for both of you separately.

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