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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home