My tween turned into an adult at 35,000 feet

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I have just booked flights both for my own family of four and for my niece and nephew. After gathering for an extended family holiday, my sister's kids are coming home with us for a further week of fun while she returns to work. 

In my mind, I was booking domestic flights for two adults (me and my husband), my two kids (aged 10 and 13), and their two cousins (aged 12 and 13). So, I booked for two adults and four kids. Right? 

Wrong. The plane tickets I booked were for one child and five adults. The price was no different, but it felt very odd.

You may have noticed that, with all Australian domestic airlines and most international flights, that there are three categories of passenger. Infants are those from birth to age two), Children applies to those aged two-11, and then 'adults' are those from age 12 up.

I don't know about you, but my 13-year old feels like a lifetime away from adulthood! Even my niece and nephew, who are very mature and responsible kids (at least when they're with me…) do not remotely feel like adults. They're all even still shorter than me (as I'm just over five feet tall, that's saying something).

Where adulthood begins varies depending on who you ask. In Australia, 18 is the age where someone can vote, legally drink alcohol and, if they are under the care of the state, be left to fend for themselves.

But holding a drivers licence (surely one of the most exciting adult milestones) varies from 17 and 18, depending on which state you live in. In the US, someone can vote at 18 but can't legally drink until 21. We tend to still hold 'coming of age' parties at 21, a left-over tradition from when this was considered the age of adulthood, and science tells our adolescent brains are still developing into our 20s.

So why is a 12-year old suddenly considered an adult when flying?

After extensive research, I confess I have drawn a bit of a blank. I have found regulations that give some clues. The Australian Government's Civil Aviation Order (about Carriage of Persons in Air Service Operations for anyone who cares), states that: "A child is a passenger who has reached his or her third but not his or her thirteenth birthday." This is close to, but doesn't completely align with usual practice of child flights being for those aged between two-11. 

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the trade association for the world's airlines and represents over 80 percent of total air traffic. Albert Tjoeng, a spokesperson for IATA says that there is leeway within regulations. " An airline is free to determine at what age they would consider a child to be an adult," he says. 

Further questions to IATA and airlines sparked quite a bit of curiosity but no real answers.

My hunch is that it is connected with the flip-side of kids and airline travel – flying unaccompanied. If you've ever arranged for one of your kids to fly by themselves (or be the pickup person at the other end), you'll know that this is an aspect of airline safety taken very seriously. Unaccompanied minors are booked in so that they are looked after during the flight and that there is no risk of them being picked up by the wrong person. 

It's great that kids are able to fly without an adult, especially for separated parents. But, as there is extra cost and effort involved, it makes sense for this to only apply when a child is at an age where they fully need this extra support.

As most airlines allow teenagers to fly independently without being considered an unaccompanied minor (here's a helpful guide), I guess it makes sense then to simply call them adults. 

So, I booked for one child and five adults. (I confess only after trying to book them all as kids but finding that I was only able to select their ages in the range of two-11).

As our flights were within Australia, there was no price difference but, be warned, considering a child as an 'adult' from age 12 can hurt more when travelling internationally, as the cost is usually higher.

I guess these 'adults' can at least carry their own bags and be trusted not to run off in a crowded airport. They are also possibly more adept at working the self-check-in and bag drop facilities than me. 

As I went to press the 'Pay Now' button for the flights, I only wished that their adult status meant that they could pay for their own ticket!

Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer and, according to the airline tickets she's booked, a parent of one child and one adult.