When Jessie Schnoor’s father, Ian, proposed a daddy-daughter weekend in London, England, the eight-year-old jumped at the chance. The catch? Jessie would have to fly to Heathrow from Toronto’s Pearson airport on her own, since her dad had to be in London the week before.
With that, Jessie became one of approximately 10,000 “unaccompanied minors,” or UAMs, who fly each year on Air Canada. Porter and WestJet offer UAM services as well. All three carriers charge $100 plus taxes per child, per flight, on top of ticket prices. The service is optional for youths aged 12 to 17 on all three airlines, but mandatory for kids aged eight to 11 on Air Canada and WestJet (kids younger than eight can’t fly alone on those airlines). But Porter lets children as young as five travel on its UAM service. Kids with severe allergies or serious medical conditions, or who are blind or deaf, cannot travel on their own on any of the airlines.
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Children tend to fly alone most often for family-related reasons, says Porter spokesperson Brad Cicero, to visit grandparents or as part of custody arrangements. Eleven-year-old Mina Stock flies solo two to three times a year from Thunder Bay, Ont., where she lives with her mom, Rhonda, to visit her dad in Oshawa, Ont. “It makes our custody arrangements more convenient and affordable,” says her mom.
Some airports allow parents to go through security with their kids and wait at the gate until boarding. Otherwise, an airline employee will escort children to the gate and directly onto the plane where flight attendants take over, making kids feel comfortable and keeping hold of forms and identification. Parents must stay at the airport until the plane takes off, and must be available by phone for the duration of the flight and until their junior traveller has been safely received.
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Kids are escorted off the plane by a flight attendant or airline representative, who accompanies them through baggage claim and customs, and then sticks around until their charges are handed off to a pre-authorized adult, who must also show government-issued identification.
Mina has been making the trip since she was eight. “It’s no problem,” says her mom. “I pack snacks, buy her gum and she usually takes an iPod, a book, a stuffed animal and something to draw with.”
Along with a favourite blanket or toy, Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick, suggests that parents pack a (clearly labelled) carry-on bag with any items, like medication or eyeglasses, that a child might need. “A cheery note to be opened after takeoff is also a nice touch,” he says. Snacks are included in the UAM fee, but it’s good to provide extras, as well as cash in case of delays.
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Flying solo isn’t for all kids. “You’re the best judge of whether your child is ready,” says mom-of-two and travel writer Heather Greenwood Davis from Toronto. Go through the airline’s guidelines, she suggests, and then talk about the trip with your child, including expectations for behaviour (like keeping seatbelts buckled), who’s picking them up at the other end, and who to turn to if they need help. “A child’s first plane trip,” she notes, “probably isn’t the best one to make a solo flight.”
For kids who aren’t ready to fly alone, WestJet also offers a “guardian fare” program that allows parents or guardians to escort their children, at a reduced rate, to their destination and then return immediately to their city of origin.
But for those who are ready to make the trip, it’s a great taste of independence in a fairly controlled environment. “Jessie was really proud of herself, and it was such a huge thrill for her,” says her dad, who cherishes the memories of riding double-decker buses and visiting Buckingham Palace with his eldest. “She loves telling people that she flew to London by herself.”
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