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When You Need Some Help Flying


For one reason or another, some travelers may need a bit of help in air travel—at the airport, and maybe during a flight. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires airlines to accommodate disabled travelers, provide assistance during flight, and accept wheelchairs and similar necessary equipment as checked baggage. But not everybody is physically disabled, in the legal sense; maybe they just need some assistance coping with airport hassles at either end or both ends of a trip. Assistance of this sort may be especially useful for travelers with a minor degree of impairment, from those with early stages of Alzheimer’s to teenagers who don’t know their way around an airport, or even just those who are apprehensive in new situations.

The basic airline situation—among almost all lines—is that a passenger who really can’t cope must be accompanied by an attendant. And that means finding someone to do the job and paying for his or her ticket. Airlines offer unaccompanied minor treatment to children up to 17 years, even though children are allowed to travel solo from age 12 to 14, depending on the airline and itinerary. Although I couldn’t find anything in any domestic line’s contract of carriage, industry lore is that some lines will extend unaccompanied-minor service to older travelers who need it.

Another way to assure that you get help is to sign up for—and pay for—some form of VIP service. Although these services target mainly celebrities, politicians and premium-travel folks accustomed to VIP treatment everywhere they go, some programs could be helpful to ordinary travelers requiring the assistance. I suspect that travelers with minor mental loss, such as early Alzheimer’s, would find such help especially useful.

A new report from IdeaWorks, which is fast becoming a go-to source for information on airline practices, summarizes the big airlines’ VIP programs. And although some of them are out-of-sight expensive for ordinary mortals, others might make some economic sense—especially for single travelers whose other option might be to hire someone and pay for his or her ticket as an attendant throughout the flight. Unfortunately, only three U.S. airlines currently offer such services.

  • Delta’s service, available at Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York/JFK, and San Francisco, provides personal escorts for departures, connections, and arrivals, along with priority check-in, fast-track security, access to Sky Club airport lounges, and private car ramp-level transfer between gates everywhere but San Francisco. The cost varies by location: $350 for one person, $425 for two, or $125/$200 at other airports. I can see where some travelers would consider this worth the price.
  • Hawaiian’s base service, available only on arrival, is more ceremonial then useful: a flower lei greeting and escort to ground transport, for $15 to $16.50. But the “Package A” service at Honolulu, including a baggage porter, hotel transfer, and arrival breakfast, at about $43, might be helpful.
  • American’s “5 Star” service, available at nine U.S. and five international airports, is limited to first- and business-class travelers. It provides personal escort for arrivals, departures, and connections; plus priority check-in, fast-track security and immigration, access to Admiral’s Club, assistance at the gate, and rebooking assistance. The cost for one person is $250 in the U.S., $300 internationally, plus $75 for an additional adult and $50 for children 17 or younger.

Big international airlines may also offer VIP services, some at prices low enough to entice even economy-class travelers. Typically, they provide about the same menu of services as Delta and American, at similar prices. Airlines providing such programs, at their primary hubs and some other locations, include Air Asia, Air France, Qatar, and Virgin Atlantic. Prices on a few other lines are low enough to be intriguing:

  • Lufthansa offers personal escort services on departures and arrivals at Frankfort and Munich for $100 per person.
  • Emirates offers a base service starting at around $25 per person at Dubai and Bahrain.
  • Etihad’s Gold option, at $55, includes the usual escort service plus fast-track immigration.

Although expensive, VIP service may cost less than an attendant. If you need such help, take a look.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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