Stevens wants to close underage flying 'loophole'

Senator calls for an examination of airlines' policies

Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2007

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens has called for an examination of the airline industry's underage flying policies after a Juneau girl was allowed to fly out of town without her parents' approval.

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Stevens, R-Alaska, questioned U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on airline industry policies that allow minors age 13 to 17 to purchase tickets and fly unaccompanied without parental consent during Thursday's Commerce Committee oversight hearing on the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

"Recently a 15-year-old girl in Juneau boarded a plane and flew to Seattle without her parents' permission and she did that to go and meet a person she had met over the Internet," Stevens said. "This, I think, exposes a loophole in the travel of an underage person."

The Juneau teenager was able to purchase an Alaska Airlines ticket with cash and without parental consent, consistent with the company's unaccompanied minor service. The girl was convinced to return to Alaska by Seattle-Tacoma Airport police before she could board her connecting flight to the East Coast.

"Have you had an occasion to take a look at that and see whether we ought to find some way to put into effect a paradigm that requires parental consent or the accompaniment of an adult for an underage person to fly, particularly interstate flying?" Stevens asked Peters.

"I haven't dealt with that issue specifically, but I will," Peters replied. "As a mother and a grandmother, I am very, very in tune to the dangers that our children face, especially when predators contact them through the Internet. I would be happy to follow up with you along those lines."

According to Senate Commerce Committee Communications Director Joe Brenckle, the Transportation Department and Peters can review all the major airlines travel policies to close the "loophole" for minors flying without parental consent, or the industry and the department can work together to establish voluntary regulations.

The Commerce Committee is awaiting specific recommendations from Peters, according to Brenckle.

Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski said the company shares in the care and concern for children's safety and security, and reviewed the situation after the August incident.

"Alaska Airlines did conduct a comprehensive review of our child travel policies and that review found that our policies are consistent with all laws, guidelines and airline industry standards," she said.

The airline put significant time and resources into its review, Tobin Bielawski said.

"We're not aware of any rule that prohibits minors from purchasing an airline ticket," she said.

Juneau's Elise Pringle, mother of the 15 year old, said she is highly supportive of Stevens' comments and vows to continue fighting for a precedent to be set so a similar incident can't happen to any other families. Pringle said the biggest question she has is when she will get some answers of how such policies can be in place.

"Everyone can look into something and throw everything and anything on a back burner," she said. "My question is when? Honestly, when?"

Pringle, who has not been in contact with Stevens, said she hopes he can provide some of the answers she is seeking.

"I'm going to regroup and circle up my little wagons," she said. "I'm going to go for it again because it needs to be changed."

Pringle said her daughter has learned that there are consequences for her actions, but said the policies need to be changed because if a similar incident occurs, the outcome could be devastating.

"That's the biggest thing I want to get across is the dangers, and kids don't think like that," she said. "She realized that anybody could have picked her up and nobody would have known where she is."

• Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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