Business travelers long ago resigned themselves to dealing with the vagaries of airline travel. But as summer vacation approaches, those who are sending their children or elderly relatives away for a break face a dilemma: Is it a good idea to subject them to potential flight changes, delays and cancellations -- and the ways airlines cope with the challenging situations?

In the first survey of its kind on

TheStreet.com

, conducted on April 3 and 4, we asked, "Do you feel safe sending people for whom you provide care -- for example, your child or your elderly parent -- on airlines by themselves?" Thirty-two percent of those who responded said no.

While the majority (61%) of those who participated in the poll said they did feel safe sending a loved one who needs extra care and attention on a flight by himself or herself, a clear apprehension exists about allowing them to travel on a plane without the guidance and companionship they have come to expect.

Yet airlines and industry watchers say hundreds of thousands of kids and seniors who need extra care will fly by themselves this summer.

It's not that unusual for school-age children to board a plane alone, said Carol Ford Arkin, family life specialist for

Ohio State University Extension

. "Some commute between their divorced parents. Others may be visiting grandparents or a best friend who moved away."

For the most part, airlines are adept at handling fliers who need special attention, said Kathy Sudeikis, a vice president at

All American Travel

in Kansas City. The firm began specializing in booking trips for children a few years ago in response to a rising number of kids flying alone.

"The airlines do fine," said Sudeikis, who is also secretary of the Alexandria, Va.-based

American Society of Travel Agents

. She noted, however, that it is wise to work to avoid potential problems. "Talk to your travel agent, the airline, the flight attendant, anybody involved," she said, "and let them know they have a child or a senior citizen who needs some special attention."

All of the major airlines have written policies and guidelines -- many of them are available on their Web sites -- concerning "unaccompanied minors," or children ages 5 to 12.

For example, the person sending a loved one who needs attention on a solo trip must give the name and address of the person meeting the flier at his or her destination, and that person must show up with a picture ID. Additionally, the person booking the flight must provide his or her own contact information in case of emergency.

There are other rules and restrictions, including a ticket surcharge that averages about $30 industry-wide, for a child traveling alone. And some airlines, including

Southwest

(LUV) - Get Report

, won't allow a child to travel on a late or connecting flight to reduce the chance the flier will get lost or stranded. (This sound policy is rightly proffered by travel agents, as well.)

"We handle hundreds of thousands of children a year," said Todd Clay, a spokesman for

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

. "And with the older folks, we know some of them might be apprehensive or a little scared, just like the kids are." Clay said that Delta, like some other airlines, calls ahead to the destination to summon staff so that children are not left alone in the terminal and older passengers receive whatever assistance is needed to get through the terminal.

Some in the travel industry, including Sudeikis, say the airlines improved their policies on handling kids after a six-year-old child claimed he was sexually assaulted by a 14-year-old boy when

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

placed the boys in the same hotel room after they missed connecting flights because of bad weather in Minneapolis in 1997. (The teenager wasn't charged because of a lack of evidence.) The airline, which had put the two in the same room with a guard posted outside the door, vowed to no longer put unrelated minors in the same room, even with parents' consent. The child's parents filed a lawsuit against Northwest and reached an out-of-court settlement with the airline.

These and other allegations in the last few years of children being preyed upon while traveling alone served as a wake-up call for the airlines, said Joel Stark, who has worked as a flight attendant for 20 years and who operates a travel-related Web site called

Air Travel Pro

.

Thankfully, the airlines seem to have listened carefully.

"You have to keep your eye on any potential problems" like child molestation, Stark said. "But really, that's not a major problem. The airlines know we are going to get kids traveling by themselves, and they're prepared."

Stark said the larger airlines, at least, make sure everyone in a flight crew knows when a child is traveling alone on a flight. He added that one flight attendant generally accepts the job of watching over the child once he or she is on board.

In the

TSC

poll, a large majority of those who responded said they did not trust one airline more than others -- and did not trust any one airline least of all. Only 3% of the poll participants said they had canceled a trip for a loved one based on a concern about airlines not providing adequate care and attention.

In his experience, Stark said, the biggest problem with sending loved ones off on their own flights is that people who have been deemed responsible for picking them up are often late -- an observation that one

TSC

reader also made in the poll. "A good number of these kids traveling alone are from broken families, and they get off the plane and nobody is there," Stark said. "We stay with them until somebody arrives, but that just makes in harder on the child."

Stark said he is less concerned about elderly passengers because many have flown before and know what to expect. Still, he points out that contacting the airlines ahead of time is essential.

"Let them know if the passenger needs a wheelchair and other assistance," he said, adding that extra care should be taken in packing bags for older fliers. "A lot of older passengers need their medicine with them, so don't pack it in the luggage."

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.