When kids are all alone at 10,000m

By Danielle Murray

Kids often like solo air travel, but it's scary for the parents, finds Danielle Murray.

Danielle Murray says there have been cases where unaccompanied minors were left to their own device which begs the question of whether a parent's diligence is enough when trusting your child to the care of airlines. Photo / Thinkstock
Danielle Murray says there have been cases where unaccompanied minors were left to their own device which begs the question of whether a parent's diligence is enough when trusting your child to the care of airlines. Photo / Thinkstock

It's not like it was her first time so why get all hung up about it?

Because it was her first time alone.

At 12 years, my daughter, Julie, has flown more than most. As soon as her birth certificate arrived in the mail, she was posing for her passport photo. Since then, she's been overseas most years.

If you want to know where it's best to sit, know if the kids' meal is better than vegetarian, or work out your in-flight entertainment system, just ask Julie.

Of course, she wasn't the least bit worried about going solo. Heck no, Julie couldn't wait to say goodbye, so long, farewell, ta ta and take off.

But as a mother - and former airline employee - I wasn't nearly so keen.

I've seen my fair share of such flights with their much anticipated happy endings.

But I've also seen what mum and dad don't see - the stuff in the middle - the boredom, the anxiety and the tears.

Every day, the world's airlines ferry across the planet thousands of children travelling alone. The official term is unaccompanied minors (UM). They must be at least 5 years of age and parents/legal guardians have to advise the airline beforehand and pay for any escort services involved.

This is not a last minute arrangement. Children must be dropped off and picked up on time at the airport by a nominated parent or legal guardian (with photo identification) and appropriate airline forms must be completed.

Despite that, back in my days at the airport, rumours among staff often circulated. Somewhere, somehow, a UM had gone missing. For good. No, it wasn't clear which airline but, of course, the poor child had never been seen or heard from again. I'm sure not much today is changed, although I've yet to find documentation to support such tall tales.

That is not to say, however, that all is smooth sailing. Even when the flight leaves and arrives on time and there is no turbulence, for some solo kids it's still a bumpy ride.

Take the case of 10-year-old Miriam Kamens.

In June last year, her father, software engineer Jonathan Kamens, took her to Boston's Logan Airport so she could fly to Cleveland. As a "non-ticketed escort" he walked her to the gate where he left her in the care of Continental Airlines. He even watched her pass through the doors to her plane. He wasn't worried about sending her alone, Miriam was a responsible child and he knew that, on the other end of her two hour non-stop flight, his in-laws would be there to meet her.

And they were. Only Miriam never arrived. Instead, she ended up in Newark, New Jersey, just outside New York City.

Kamens had no idea. Continental it seems, also had no idea. "I realised she was missing when I got a phone call from my father-in-law saying, 'Where's Miriam?'," he says.

When Miriam did not turn up in Cleveland, the airline could not tell her grandfather where she might be. When she surfaced in Newark with no one to greet her, airline personnel left a message on his answer-phone urging him to pick her up, but failed to notice from her paperwork that she was off course.

Kamens was "panic-stricken". For almost an hour he did not know where his daughter might be. Nor, he says, did the airline. And it was he, having noticed when taking her to the gate that two aircraft were loading from the same door, who finally worked out her likely location.

"The only reason they were able to figure it out at all is because I told them that there had been a flight to Newark boarding at the same gate and the best possible explanation for her whereabouts was that the gate agent put her on the wrong flight."

Luckily, Miriam (who did not have a mobile phone with her) was tracked down a short time later, safe and sound, and according to her dad "she didn't even realise she was in the wrong city". By the end of the day, she was in the right place.

Even on the right flight, things can go wrong. In December 2007, 5-year-old Sara Maude St Louis was travelling alone from her home in Edmonton, Canada, on WestJet to see her father on the other side of the country.

Pierre Cataford, a father of four sitting next to her, said the girl was ignored throughout the five-hour journey. When she became frightened, he called her father in Montreal from the plane so she could be reassured.

When the flight landed, it was Cataford who helped her gather her things and get her coat. And when no one came to escort her from the plane, he then accompanied her - without objection from the crew who failed to act on the large UM tag around her neck - to the luggage area where her father was waiting.

"She was alone. Nobody came to see her. Nobody asked if she was okay. It was unbelievable," Steve St Louis told Canada's CBC news.

If anyone thinks these sorts of scenarios can't possibly happen here, think again. Speaking on a Trade Me forum, Aaron in Tauranga says that about five years ago, he sent his then 8-year-old daughter to Auckland as a UM where his sister was to meet her on arrival.

When weather in Auckland turned bad, the plane was forced to turn back. It was only when his sister called to say the plane hadn't arrived in Auckland that he discovered his daughter was in Tauranga, left on her own in a room at the airport, watching television.

He returned to the airport where he was told they were going to bus her up with the other passengers. "When I asked who would be responsible for seeing her off at the other end, they said the bus driver would be with her until she was signed over to my sister."

Instead, his sister found his daughter "wandering around Auckland Airport by herself. They'd just dropped her off."

While an airline representative did apologise for the incident, he now wishes he hadn't let the matter drop so easily. "I wish I had taken it further at the time but I was so relieved when the whole bloody episode was over ..."

Still, given the hordes of children who do fly across the world alone every day, mix-ups are few and far between. And many airlines have gone out of their way to make the experience pleasant, providing supervised UM lounges complete with snacks and fizzy drinks, large-screen televisions, DVDs, books, games and arts and crafts.

My own 12-year-old, now back from a week visiting Aunty Kim in Australia, also had a smooth passage - though apparently her passport failed to scan on the way back and, for a few seconds,, said Julie, she was "like, freaking terrified" that Australian immigration wouldn't let her home.

"Like, the sky chick could have been better about helping me out, you know. I mean, I was like, freaking out and she was not, like, helping. At all."

"But she was all right, wasn't she? She walked you to the gate and made sure you were all good and sorted?" I ask as we make our way out the terminal building, now thinking maybe I should never have let her go.

"Yeah," she says, suddenly terribly pre-occupied with her hair. "Whatever."

CHECKLIST

Further information: Like most airlines, Air New Zealand reviews policies, guidelines and procedures on unaccompanied minors on a regular basis.

For the most up-to-date information, click here.

For unaccompanied minor age limits, visit here.

- NZ Herald

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