I know, I’m a little old to be considered an unaccompanied minor, I’ve certainly grown up since my first ever flight, flying solo in my early teens. Flying solo was an life shaping experience though, I’ve been hooked on travel ever since, and always felt confident flying, so when Air France recently invited me to fly to Paris to walk through their Kids Solo service at Charles De Gaulle Airport I couldn’t wait to find out more and to check out the fab new Kids Solo Transit Lounge. Air France fly more unaccompanied children than any other airline, making them a company of reference for this service, raising a new generation of confident travellers.
We land in sunny Paris, via a view of the Eiffel Tower from the window and, rather like an unaccompanied minor I’m met immediately by smiley Jean-Paul Claret who whisks me off and fast tracks me through the airport to meet Jean-François Darbier, Family and Special Needs Passengers Customer Experience Manager for Air France.
Jean-François tells me over 300,000 unaccompanied minors fly with Air France each year, the largest number for any airline. BA for example fly about 20,000 a year and are soon to end this service. It’s a labour intensive and expensive business flying children solo, as anyone who has ever accompanied a child on a plane or within an airport will fully appreciate. Air France are experts and continue to invest in getting this important service perfect, I’m really excited to share my tour of the newly upgraded Unaccompanied Minors’ transit lounge.
How old is an unaccompanied minor?
On regional flights unaccompanied minors aged 4-11 must travel with Kids Solo, ages 12-17 can benefit from the unaccompanied minors optional service. For international flights unaccompanied minors aged 5-14 must opt for the Kids Solo service, teenagers 15-17 can opt in.
How much does it cost to fly solo?
Charges for the service are built in to ticket price where compulsary, or bolted on for those opting in, and range from $25 short haul to $100 long haul – an incredibly reasonable childcare cost when you think about it, especially given some airlines will charge a full adult fare plus supplement.
What about booking and insurance?
Unaccompanied minors’ places can be booked online, Air France have a comprehensive guide to Kids Solo on their site. There is the option to purchase special insurance, in partnership with Mondial Assistance, on domestic and COI flights, this offers added extras to the classic cancellation and repatriation insurance such as favourite toy insurance – delivery of an object forgotten at home to the child’s destination.
How to I know where to take my child?
Kids Solo is very well signed throughout the process, with lots of specific spaces to welcome passengers. At departures, staff begin by greeting the child and giving them a meeting time and place. At Charles De Gaulle Air France have a screened off lounge area next to check in, providing a relaxed and more private environment for parents to say ‘Au Revoir’ and to formally hand over care to their child’s Air France guardian.
What about looking after their tickets and passports?
All children are given a special Kids Solo pouch to wear around their neck with their contact, language and flight details, their passport, ticket and any special advice.
What if I’m nervous?
Air France staff assure me it’s the parents and not the kids who are anxious, understandably, flying solo is a big deal, but Air France take their responsibilities very seriously and have planned for all eventualities as well as planning in lots of fun and distractions on the way.
Parents or adults accompanying children to the airport are asked to remain in the airport until the flight has departed, just in case of cancellations. Helpfully, Air France then text both parties involved in dropping off and meeting the child, to confirm the flight has departed and advise of its ETA. In the very unlikely event that the plane is rerouted to another airport or a transfer is significantly delayed an Air France member of staff would stay with the child at all times.
What happens after we say goodbye?
From the goodbye area children are taken along a quieter route to passport control and security by their Air France guardian, and where possible fast track security and passport queues – as a parent walking through the process I immediately appreciate how keeping children on the move and distracted helps them to settle into the journey ahead, and put goodbyes behind. I certainly don’t have a minute to worry about anything as Jean Paul cheerily waves me though priority line after priority line. It’s lovely having someone who knows the airport like the back of their hand look after me, for the first time in over twenty years there was no need to think about anything, just enjoy looking round and watch the planes!
What happens on the plane?
When the children arrive at the gate, their guardian hands over care to the in flight team who then ensure the child’s comfort on the aircraft. The staff on Air France are super friendly and warm, their manner with the children I observe is lovely. They smile this much in real life too, ‘smile’ features a lot in this post!
On my flights I really enjoy looking though my kid’s goodie bag – a cool pouch bag with super tactile and interactive contents – origami, an erasable doodle board and colour in plane postcard that you can make fly with an app – touches I know my kids will appreciate. Of course, you don’t have to fly solo to get one, they are part of the Air France offering for children.
What if they have a transfer?
Not all children are flying direct – Air France connect lots of regional airports to international routes, and so Air France also have Kids Solo Lounges for connections of over one or two hours. All lounges big or small have the same entertainment offer, a child friendly space packed with distractions…
Kids Solo Lounges
The young teen playing table football with his cheery Air France guardian and two other children smiles when I ask if he’s flown solo before, ‘Yeah, of course, I’m studying there.’ There is Cameroon. The children who fly solo with Air France each year range from first time flyers to platinum flying pros.
Across the room more children and staff sit in pairs, engrossed in playing new and not yet released games on the three sets of PS4s, Air France have a special relationship with Sony who provide all the Kids Solo lounges with gaming technology. The kids get to test new releases, both Sony and Air France recognise that the best way to improve products for kids, is to ask them what they think directly. Likewise, children are also regularly asked to contribute their opinions to shape the Air France Kids Solo service.
In the younger children’s area, two siblings play together on the Playstation Vista while two older sisters entertain their youngest at the drawing station. Through the door in the television room a little boy, who reminds me of my own 7yo boy, sits sipping juice and watching cartoons. Through the next door an older teen looks very at home lying on a bean bag scrolling through her phone which is charging in a USB port – Air France staff suggested this innovation, no need for kids from different countries to find their adaptor, which may be packed in their baggage in transit – you can see the points here in the skirting.
The toilets are immaculately clean and designed to be accessible to the disabled or those with sensory impairments. In the centre of the hub of interconnected rooms, is the staff room, where I am met by lots of friendly smiles, the staff explain that a computer screen displays children’s names, flights, timings and colour codes to represent staff actions – red indicates children have already been taken to the gate by staff and handed over directly to cabin crew. A whiteboard also holds the same information in case of technical issues. All lounge areas have CCTV cameras which feed into the office, but trained staff are also in the lounge itself playing alongside the kids.
Through a window in the office, staff can see into both the younger children’s area and into the bedroom where, as I leave, one child is taking a nap between flights tucked under an Air France blanket. The rest area is spotlessly clean and comfortable and each child receives new clean bedding, just as they would on a plane journey.
What about food?
In the kitchen croissants and juice from an organic cafe in the airport have just been delivered, and later lunch will be served in here. Air France provide children’s meals and snacks on board too and try to use organic ingredients where possible.
We also visit a smaller lounge in another terminal, used outside of school holidays, the exciting thing about this was being able to walk through the area where off duty pilots and air hostesses relax! Although much smaller, the toys and games are exactly the same and although empty, the lounge had clearly had some happy children pass through.
I’m really impressed by the Kids Solo offering, and I think my own kids would love it. Air France really have thought through all the details, from practical safeguarding to fun and entertainment. The kids I observe all look to be really enjoying travelling solo, 91% of children surveyed by Air France would recommend Kids Solo and you can see why.
After this we head to the business lounge so I could ask Jean François some more questions, you can read the full interview over on Space In Your Case, or have a sneak peak in the lounge first here…
Air France Business Lounge
My visit left just enough time to pop into the long haul departure lounge, this luxury lounge, lined with a museum, Prada, Gucci, Japanese bubble art, swivel recliners is so glamorous!
It is also home of the stunning Air France Business lounge which makes me dream of luxury escaping.
Air France have added a Kids Space into their lounge too, Playstation Vista and toys, close proximity to the snacks and great views of planes – what more could a child want? Designer furniture to match mum and dad’s, in miniature? Ok!
My only regret was I didn’t have my family with me, firstly because I would really loved to have been stalking my own kids flying solo. I have a feeling they would love to fly solo, and it would have been great fun to see what they got up to. Secondly, Charles De Gaulle is such a inspiring airport, full of glamour, light and bold design and as I watched an Air Bus A380, Air France’s largest plane, preparing for take off, how I wished the four of us were LA or New York bound on a new travel adventure.
Remember to check out my interview over on Space In Your Case with Jean François, who really helped to allay any parental fears I had about flying as unaccompanied minor, and find out more about his team, who seem to be always looking to create more fun for kids. Find out more on the Unaccompanied Minors section of the Air France website too.
Do let me know if you have any questions or concerns about flying as an unaccompanied minor and I will endeavour to get them answered for you. Have your children flown solo? What was your experience?
I flew to Paris as a guest of Air France and was commissioned to create this piece. All views remain my own.