My children, 7 and 9, flew Southwest to Los Angeles yesterday without a chaperone.
Here's how it works:
My mom, the person on the receiving end of my most valuable air mail ever, purchased the tickets over the phone. It costs a non-refundable $50 per child per ticket ($100 round trip each) in addition to the airfare. Information collected over the phone included her name and cell number, my name and cell number, and an alternate adult's contact information.
When I brought my children to the Oakland airport, I parked in hourly parking. The kids had one carry-on backpack to share, stuffed with snacks, stuffed animals, books, and our old iPad. (Who am I kidding? They're not going to read their chapter books on the plane.) We had one shared rolling suitcase to check.
I had filled out this form for Unaccompanied Minors on Southwest and brought copies of their birth certificates. Upon close inspection at the check-in counter, it turned out I had brought two birth certificates for the same child, but their proof of age was not being scrutinized, so it was fine. I had already armed my mom with scans of their passports, so hopefully she will do better on the return trip if she needs to prove their ages, which need to be between 5 and 12. Over 12 and no additional fee or attention is required for a passenger. I'm not sure what would happen if you want your 13-year old to fly alone but want to walk him or her to the gate.
We checked in at the counter and I handed over my driver's license as usual, though I didn't have a ticket in my name. I was issued a boarding pass-like paper that indicated I was helping someone with special needs. This gave me permission to go through security. The children were given plastic pockets to hang around their necks with their boarding passes and a booklet for signatures, plus all the phone numbers printed on them. They were told to wear them until they got to their adults on the other end of the trip. We three proceeded through security together.
The kids' boarding passes assigned them two different boarding groups, but it didn't matter because unaccompanied minors get pre-boarded by a crew member. The caregiver cannot check in for the flight 24 hours in advance, and doesn't need to.
We arrived at the gate about an hour before the flight time, so I bought the kids muffins from Starbucks and they proceeded to leave a trail of crumbs all over the Oakland Airport, or at least at Gate 26. I was glad that I didn't let them take something so messy on the plane, and I started to worry about them spilling drinks on their seatmate, playing a game with annoying music on the iPad, and getting too silly in their seats.
Soon the gate agent announced the flight and the first group and then motioned for me to bring them over for pre-boarding. There was another brother/sister pair about the same age also flying unaccompanied. The four kids were walked all the way to their seats by the agent and I took a seat at the gate. The caregiver at the point of origin is required to wait until the flight is in the air before leaving the airport.
I watched the plane with intense curiosity, wondering with whom my kids were seated, if they were quiet, if they were attempting to boss each other around. Yes, they go to school each day without me, but that is a kid-centric environment. The folks working on the plane are not babysitters — although they did charge us $100 for 55 minutes of care, so perhaps they are in this context.
I texted my mom to let her know the plane had backed out of the gate and she assured me that she and her husband were already going through security to wait at the gate in LA. She actually had the children fly into Burbank, a smaller airport where you can park closer to the baggage claim than at LAX.
She texted me again when she had the kids and their luggage. That night when we talked on the phone she told me the flight went very well and that the person who sat next to the kids loved them and talked to them about her workplace — Dreyer's ice cream (!) — for much of the flight.
From Alameda mom Leslie Harvey, who writes TravelWithTykes.com, I learned that Alaska charges half of what Southwest does for kids flying alone – $25 per leg – which is worth knowing since Alaska also services OAK. Leslie offers a thorough breakdown of the airlines and their unaccompanied minors policies here.