In the future, passengers 12 and younger may not travel with Aer Lingus unless their parents accompany them or a designated guardian aged over 16.
The company says the decision has been taken on the basis of the safety and security of children and is not as a result of cost cutting.
Enda Corneille, the airline’s head of European sales, said the air travel environment had fundamentally changed and the matter had been under review for some time.
“Airports are more congested, there are a greater number of people traveling and the overall experience is far more stressful,” he said. “It goes without saying that the safety and security of children is paramount. In this context we feel we can no longer take responsibility for the welfare of young children under the age of 12 traveling alone.”
It is understood the decision arose out of reexamination of airline policy in the wake of increased security following the Sept. 11 attacks on America and tragedies like the abduction of murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Britain last summer.
But some travel agents in the U.S. have received complaints about the change of policy, with Irish customers saying that the service had been useful for families in the past who could not afford to send everyone home at Christmas for example — the little ones went instead.
New Aer Rianta security measures at airports since the U.S. attacks has meant that parents have not been able to accompany children through check-in procedures and wait with them until they are called for boarding. Single-parent families and large families have used the policy in the past to transport their youngest loved ones.
Crystal Travel representative Jimmy Kelly said that “over the years, people have been put on the wrong flights occasionally.” He said that travel agents dealing with the Irish airline had heard “a few people complaining about the change,” which was used “in both directions” extensively by parents who wanted their children to be able to visit other relatives.
Corneille said that the airline carries an average of 150 unaccompanied children a day but, obviously, the numbers would be higher during peak holiday periods.
With increasing marital breakdown and a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, many people send their children unaccompanied on flights to visit absent spouses or relatives.
Corneille said that nowadays the pattern of travel means that children could be passing through more than one airport and traveling on more than one airline.
He said no events had triggered the decision. “That’s really one of the reasons we have taken it,” he said. “It is better to take the decision proactively — to ensure these steps are taken before any incident was to happen.”
He was emphatic that the decision was not related to saving money.
“This is not a cost issue whatsoever,” he said. “If it were a cost issue we perhaps would look at putting a charge on the service of carrying unaccompanied minors.”
The airline will continue to ferry children aged 12 through to 16 as minors.
Stephen McKinley contributed to this story.