Karl on his way to the security check
©Andreas Fechner

Flying like professionals

  • TEXT MECHTHILD BAUSCH
  • PHOTOS ANDREAS FECHNER, THOMAS STRAUB

When children travel by themselves, Lufthansa temporarily becomes their family. The airline has, in fact, been taking special care of young customers for almost 50 years. We accompany Paula and Karl, both seven years old

The book Detective Stories for Young Readers is going into her carry-on bag, Paula Wendt decides. “It’s fun, you have to guess!” The seven-year-old also thinks it’s fun going places without her parents. “I went to buy milk by myself for the first time last week,” says the second grader from Moosach, near Munich, stuffing her plush toys Bear and Camel into her knapsack.

But she was only six when she flew by herself for the first time – home to Munich on board Lufthansa after visiting her grandmother in Hanover. Paula proudly displays the dates in her Lufthansa Logbook. “We were at least as nervous and excited as she was,” says her father, Dirk Wendt, “a child’s mood can shift quickly, but Paula was great.”

We set off for the airport. Today, Paula’s traveling all the way from Munich to Dubrovnik, to visit her other grandparents in Croatia. It’s a “test flight” for future vacations there. “This way, Paula could fly on ahead or stay longer if we had to return early,” explains Wendt in the car. The 46-year-old and his wife, Anita, both work in insurance. “Lufthansa’s UM service is a boon when both parents work.”

UM stands for “unaccompanied minors,” and Lufthansa has been offering this service since 1968. Every year, 80 000 children ages five to eleven take advantage of it worldwide. “The number of UM bookings has been fairly constantly at this high level for the past few years now,” says Astrid Holstein, head of the UM service in Frankfurt. Weekends are busy, too. “We see more and more children whose parents have separated regularly flying from one city to another, depending on whose weekend it is,” says the expert, who takes the UM service very seriously: “It’s a real challenge because the children are entirely in our care.” Attendants are specially trained, and the number one rule is: Never lose sight of your charges, no matter what.

When flying Lufthansa, UM flights with transfers are possible too – a service that very few airlines provide. Roughly half of the young passengers take advantage of it every year. As many as 600 children change planes in Frankfurt on peak days during school breaks. If one misses a connection, the attendant goes along to the hotel with the child and spends the night. “We’re prepared for this eventuality at all the other airports, too,” says Holstein.

Paula Wendt with her father, Dirk, about to check in at Munich Airport

Paula Wendt with her father, Dirk, about to check in at Munich Airport

© Thomas Straub
At the check-in counter Paula hands in her personal Lufthansa Logbook

At the check-in counter Paula hands in her personal Lufthansa Logbook

© Thomas Straub
Special attendant Stephanie Kelly takes Paula to the gate

Special attendant Stephanie Kelly takes Paula to the gate

© Thomas Straub
Paula scans her ticket

Paula scans her ticket

© Thomas Straub
In the cockpit: Captain Florian Rosch (left) and copilot Ulf Dietrich Schäfe fill out Paula’s Lufthansa Logbook

In the cockpit: Captain Florian Rosch (left) and copilot Ulf Dietrich Schäfe fill out Paula’s Lufthansa Logbook

© Thomas Straub
Paula fully enjoys her flight - and her sandwich

Paula fully enjoys her flight – and her sandwich

© Thomas Straub
Lufthansa Crew waves goodbye to Paula

Lufthansa Crew waves goodbye to Paula

© Thomas Straub
Happily reunited in Croatia: Paula hugs her grandfather in Dubrovnik

Happily reunited in Croatia: Paula hugs her grandfather in Dubrovnik

© Thomas Straub

 At Munich Airport, everything goes smoothly. Papa Dirk is asked to show identification at the UM check-in desk. Daughter Paula slips her ID and boarding card into the yellow bag around her neck, which also contains the form authorizing her grandfather to pick her up. Dirk Wendt paid the extra charge when he booked the flight. The service costs 50 euros for German and European routes, and 120 US dollars on intercontinental routes. Lufthansa attendent Lisa Noller arrives and says hello to Paula.

“Some children cry and are afraid to leave their parents, others can barely contain their excitement,” she tells us, “Paula is the third kind of child.” After hugging her father goodbye, Paula marches off happily with her big friend toward the security checkpoint. “It never beeped until I was five,” says the young frequent flier, who has already been to Namibia, Dubai and Australia. In the children’s lounge, which has a foosball table, toys, snacks and beverages, Paula draws a picture of an island covered with palm trees.

“I’ve been a Senator since I was two.” The Lufthansa customer who fits this bill is now seven years old: Karl Niermann from Essen. He has flown by himself already, too, and the only thing he thought was strange was that “nobody was sitting next to me that I knew.” On the lookout platform at Düsseldorf Airport, Karl tells us his plans: “I’m going to Dubai with my little brother, Paul, in the fall break; we’re flying by ourselves. That’s cool. We’ll join my mom and dad and little sister there.” His mother, Andrea Niermann, a businesswoman, nods: “It’s a convenient solution for the entire family.” She fully supports her independent sons: “Flying by yourself at that age is like pushing back boundaries. Once you’ve done it, you have a right to be proud.”

She speaks from experience: The 43-year-old was seven herself when she flew for the first time – unaccompanied. For parents, the most important thing is trust in their own children and trust in the airline. “There’s no safer way for Karl to travel than with Lufthansa,” says Niermann. “Letting him travel alone by train or with someone in a car would be very difficult for me.” She’s also happy that Lufthansa has extended its children’s entertainment program to include more films, and for different age groups, as the Niermann brothers will soon see for themselves. The only thing their mother regrets is that there’s no sibling discount.

Seven-year-old Karl Niermann with a five-year-old Senator card

Seven-year-old Karl Niermann with a five-year-old Senator card

© Andreas Fechner
Time for a quick look at the animals

Time for a quick look at the animals

© Andreas Fechner
Karl keeps an overview

Karl keeps an overview

© Andreas Fechner
Patiently waiting for boarding

Patiently waiting for boarding

© Andreas Fechner
Off to the gate!

Off to the gate!

© Andreas Fechner

 It’s boarding time in Munich: A special shuttle takes Paula straight to the plane. Unaccompanied children are always the first to board, and the crew line up to receive them at the door. Paula hands the captain her logbook so he can enter the dates. At Paula’s seat, flight attendant Christine Drexler says: “Do you know where the button is? If you press that one, I will come.” Paula stows her book of detective stories in the seat pocket. “I might want to read a little bit later,” she explains. The aircraft rolls toward its starting position. Is she nervous, flying without her parents? “Nope. I’m used to it,” she says.

“We want to know whether or not the children are happy, and what to watch out for,” says UM manager Astrid Holstein. Food intolerance is affecting more and more young passengers.
“It’s important that the older ones at least keep this in mind and let us know,” she says. Roughly half the UM passengers speak languages other than German at home, and if at all possible, they are assigned attendants who speak their mother tongue. “If our service creates a positive feeling and happy memories for the entire family as well as helping them solve a logistical problem, then we have achieved our goal,” says Holstein. After all: “Today’s unaccompanied children are tomorrow’s customers.”

We land in Dubrovnik. A Croatian attendant picks Paula up at the gate, accompanies her through passport control and out to the exit, where Paula throws her arms around her grandfather Miho Glavinić’s neck. “Now I can come visit you in the vacation!” The final leg of the journey is the car ride along the coastal road. Paula snuggles up to her plush toys and yawns. Her detective ­stories will have to wait until another day.