A Winter's Tale: Freedom in the air

December is peak season for "unaccompanied minors", or UMs in airline-speak: under 12s who fly for thousands of miles without their mum or dad. This Christmas there will be more of them hanging around airports than ever before. You can spot them a mile off - they tend to travel in groups, wear pouches with travel documents in, and appear totally at ease in their surroundings despite having no parent with them. If you look carefully, you can usually spot the airline escort or crew member in charge, but this adult figure rarely impinges on the unnatural confidence of these very young travellers.

December is peak season for "unaccompanied minors", or UMs in airline-speak: under 12s who fly for thousands of miles without their mum or dad. This Christmas there will be more of them hanging around airports than ever before. You can spot them a mile off - they tend to travel in groups, wear pouches with travel documents in, and appear totally at ease in their surroundings despite having no parent with them. If you look carefully, you can usually spot the airline escort or crew member in charge, but this adult figure rarely impinges on the unnatural confidence of these very young travellers.

Most of these children are well used to travelling on their own, since international air travel is an intrinsic part of their school run. At the start of each vacation, and even some half terms, they say goodbye to their classmates, turn up at an airport, and fly home on "lollipop specials" - flights so jam-packed with kids it's a bit like being on a school bus.

British Airways expects to look after around 150,000 UMs this year, up by one-sixth on 1999. Virgin reports a similar trend, which is attributed to an increase in expatriates who want their children educated in the UK, families with second homes, and separated parents who live continents apart.

UMs provide good business for BA and Virgin; unlike some rivals they charge no more than the normal child fare. Parents are reassured by the knowledge that their child will be looked after from check-in to arrival by ground and cabin staff. And if a child is one of a number of UMs travelling to the same destination, then an in-flight escort is provided. Known as an "auntie" or "uncle", the escort looks after the UMs throughout their journey.

Children, whether accompanied or not, get excellent inflight entertainment these days: with bags of goodies, "kids" meals and, on some flights, seatback TVs. Some under-12s actually prefer to travel without their parents. Ten-year-old Hannah Hopkins loves the food on offer - hamburgers, fish fingers, and ice cream. A regular on the BA London to Bombay route, she says being a UM has definite advantages: "You get really nice meals if you travel on your own, I don't get them if my parents are with me."

Eleven-year-old Alex Hughes, who until last year was a UM on Virgin's London to Hong Kong route, agrees: "There are always 10 or 11 movies and you also get five or six Nintendo games." Like Hannah, he thinks travelling without parents is an advantage. "It's nice not to have your parents telling you what to do the whole time," he says. "Your mum and dad tell you to do things - an auntie always asks."

Mary Chalaye has been a children's escort since 1971, and has never been busier. Currently with BA, she says: "On some flights, in particular to Hong Kong, there are so many children on board that the airline provides three aunties." Life for an auntie has certainly improved over the last three decades - the in-flight entertainment, which all the UMs love so much, has made Mary Chalaye's job a lot easier.

"The kids are more controllable," she says. "As soon as they're on board, the headsets go on, and you don't hear from them for the whole journey. When I started in the 1970s the auntie was the only in-flight entertainment. I would start off by saying 'What's the latest joke?' and go from there. If someone had a guitar we would all have a sing-song or we played 'Guess which country we're flying over?'."

The UM schemes have come a long way since Mary Chalaye started out as an auntie - the whole culture of child care has changed. I know because I was a UM in the 1970s, travelling on up to six flights a year between London Gatwick and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Then you were treated like wartime evacuees. At the airport you waited in roped-off areas similar to cattle pens. You were not allowed to move until auntie appeared and took charge of her group. She, and it was always a she, would issue each charge with a large humiliating name badge, which however hard you tried to conceal, always stuck out.

It was deemed desperately uncool to be associated with auntie, so a knowing UM would try and sit as far away from her as they could get away with. But, once on board, this could be counter-productive as a crucial part of the whole exercise was to acquire as many freebie games and sweets as possible, and the custodian of these goodies was the auntie herself.

The flights always seemed desperately long. There's only so many times you can play Cluedo, or Snap. The hours between take-off and landing were counted religiously, delays felt like an eternity, and invariably someone would miss the sick bag. Which all sounds very different to what the young people experience who travel on their own today.

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