Flying home for the holidays: The junior jet-set

This weekend, thousands of children will be flying home to join their families for Christmas. Sonia Purnell reports on the junior jet set
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The Independent Travel

Despite the New York crashes, flying is still a fact of life for the estimated seven million children a year who travel alone by air. Some, such as the thousands who will return to their homes in Hong Kong from their public schools in Britain this Christmas, become seasoned solo flyers by the age of seven or eight.

"They scramble aboard and get stuck in straight away to the video games and puzzles, without a care in the world," says a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic, which last year carried more than 3,000 solo fliers aged five to 11. "Hong Kong to London is by far the biggest route for unaccompanied minors because schools here have such a good reputation in Asia."

Virgin – like British Airways and Cathay Pacific, which all operate on that route – provides specialist staff, known in the trade as "aunties", to escort these trans-continental commuters from check-in to the aircraft. At the other end, airline staff will again stay with the "unmins" – as they are nicknamed – from the plane door to the designated adult picking up the child.

When there are groups of unmins travelling, most European and Asian airlines provide aunties on board, too, free of charge. (The position is different with many US airlines which charge for the service.)

BA is probably the leader of the pack, with its Skyflyer unmin lounges at Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham described by one 15-year-old schoolboy, who views flying solo to America with the same indifference as crossing the local high street, as "totally cool". These brightly coloured rooms are packed with games and activities as well as the usual childhood accompaniments of crisps, sweets and cola.

But Virgin also scores highly with its Nintendo game package on board and its slightly funkier image. British boarding schools frequently establish a relationship with one particular carrier so that its pupils can all fly together.

Teenagers up to 16 or 17 – depending on the airline – are afforded a little more dignity by being named "young passengers", but they are still accompanied by airline staff until picked up by an adult.

Clearly, young flyers can get nervous and cabin crew and aunties alike can all recall dispensing cuddles – and even clean clothes – when necessary. But most children adore the experience on airlines such as KLM and BA, which have perfected the art of treating them as VIPs. They get seated first, fed first and fussed over. As a result, many try to avoid the "tedium" of flying with parents.

So far, so good. But in America, things have been known to go wrong, particularly when connecting flights are involved. There was a series of incidents in the US earlier this year when unmins were put by airline staff on to the wrong flight, with one youngster ending up in Orlando rather than Detroit.

There has been a spate of legal actions against US airlines, including a claim on behalf of a six-year-old who was allegedly molested when put up overnight in a hotel room with strangers after his connecting flight had been cancelled. There have also been complaints that youngsters have been seated between two male adults on board or told not to phone their parents when their flight has been cancelled in the middle of the night.

Parents of seasoned unmins, therefore, give the following tips before you say a tearful goodbye at check-in:

¿ Train your child to recite name, address and phone number.

¿ Give emergency money.

¿ Take novice flyers on a tour of the airport so they know what to expect from security checks, baggage claim, etc.

¿ Let them travel at midday rather than at peak times so that they get full attention from staff, avoid too many pressured adults and lower the chances of getting stranded at a connecting airport if a flight is cancelled.

¿ Never leave the airport until your child's flight has taken off, so they aren't left on their own for hours if delayed by weather, etc.

¿ Insist on a guaranteed aisle seat so they can get hold of cabin crew more easily, and next to either families, other unmins or women rather than solo men.

¿ Convince them that it is "cool" to contact uniformed staff with any concerns, rather than braving them alone.

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