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| by KATE POCOCK|
Family Travel Ink
Kids Flying Alone need Special Help
They are called UMs, as in “Unaccompanied Minors,” or as in one panic-stricken flight attendant shouting to another, “Have you got the Ums?” I heard this cry as our family was getting off a recent flight from Miami. It seemed that the young flyers entrusted to their care had indeed become unaccompanied altogether and were loose in Perason airport. Most airplanes take kids as young as six for solo flying and usually the set up makes sure that kids don’t escape the aircraft and are delivered personally to the proper greeter at the airport destination.
The best scenario involving UMs is a scene from an Air France Flight we once took back to Paris at the end of the summer. It seemed that half the plane were solos going back to school or mom or dad. But these flight attendants were ready. Sitting the kids together on the airplane, they passed out games, coloring books and snacks. At one point, they led the kids in a campfire-like sing-song—to the delight of most of the other passengers.
But that’s not to say there aren’t glitches when kids fly alone. I heard a story a few weeks ago from two kids who fly to Ontario each summer from Newfoundland to go to camp, often switching planes in Halifax. When they were eight and ten, it was only after the plane was beginning to taxi out to the runway and the pilot was welcoming passengers to “our flight today to Montreal” that the oldest realized they were on the wrong flight. Luckily, he had the gumption to call out and the plane was turned around so they could disembark.
There are some things parents can do to ensure that the skies are friendly for young flyers travelling alone. Before you send them off into the wild blue yonder, here are a few things to consider:
1) Book flights in non-peak travelling times. The ombudsman of Condé Nast Traveler magazine took United Airlines to task because 10-year-old Bradley, on a flight to San Francisco, had not been personally taken off the plane and handed over to his grandma despite the fact that his grandparents had paid $40 extra for the service. When questioned, the airline replied that it was two days after Christmas and they were super busy. Obviously, staff have more time with the child on a mid-seek morning when the flight is half full.
2) Arrive as early as possible at the airport to fill out the appropriate forms. Don’t leave the airport until you know that the flight is airborne. There should be someone to answer the telephone at both the sender’s and receiver’s home in case of scheduling changes. Let your child know that certain circumstances, such as weather, could change the flight path. Basically, you sign over your child’s safety to the discretion of the airline which includes sending the child home if the designated receiver is not there to meet him.
3) Some airlines are beginning to charge a service fee for taking care of an unaccompanied child. They vary according to whether a flight is direct or not, or how many connections. Some airlines, such as KLM will also keep an eye on young teens who are travelling by themselves.
4) Find out what the airline gives to children so that your child knows to request it once on board. For instance, British Airways gives out log books and jazzy plastic duffel bags full of games and stickers; Air Canada’s Skyriders program for kids up to 11 offers games on board and Harvey burgers. Ask ahead which channel on the audio plays children’s music or story tapes. Knowing where to find a favorite Robert Munsch story could ease a child’s jitters. Special meals such as kid’s snack packs or vegetarian meals for teens have to be ordered in advance, for some airlines as much as 36 hours.
5) If a kid has to switch planes, opt for an airport that has a playground equipped with video games and staff such as the Jetport in Calgary. Send him with something to chew on or suck during take-off and landing, the worst times for ear pain, and drinks in case of plane delays. Having a backpack on board packed with favorite toys, a furry friend and a Walkman as well as a change of clothes in case the luggage is delayed can help a lot.
6) Have the child carry more in his pouch around his neck than the ticket including health card, birth certificate, flight numbers and telephone numbers of sender and receiver, addresses, etc. He can hand it all over should any problem arise. Some airlines, such as British Airways give unaccompanied flyers their own baggage tags so their suitcases are the first to unload, ticket wallets so that they feel somewhat in charge.
7) Lastly, relax. Your child will probably find flying a thrilling experience. And with more kids winging the tarmac, airline staff are experienced in dealing with this growing phenomenon. The Air Transport Association in the U.S. estimates that more than 20,000 UMs travel across North America each day.
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