Hong Kong's children have long been accustomed to flying solo. But are happy landings always guaranteed or could there be trouble in the air for today's generation of unaccompanied young travellers? In her new, Hitchcockian movie, Flightplan, Jodie Foster's character apparently loses her daughter in mid-air. Perhaps she should stow the child securely in the overhead locker, ensuring she does not fall out and injure other passengers when the locker is opened, because children can move around in flight. One subplot of the film is that Foster's character may be crazy. Back in the real world, innumerable aspects of flying can drive you mad, particularly if you're a parent. But the stakes and the stress are much higher if you're a parent who sends an unaccompanied child off on their merry way to be met on landing by stepfather, mother or brother, perhaps ... if all goes smoothly. Hong Kong is hardly under-represented when it comes to youngsters winging their way around the globe. They may be the children of separated expatriate parents, the latest generation of an extended Chinese family or pupils at British, American or Canadian schools. Their tickets to ride may see them flying solo to and from Hong Kong several times a year. And some may find themselves flying straight into harm's way. One Hong Kong girl, whom we shall call Gemma, is already, at 12, a veteran traveller, having begun flying solo at nine. Gemma flies to South Africa three times a year to visit her father. Her mother, Barbara, does everything in her power to ensure trouble-free travel, but it's not without trepidation that she waves her off at Chek Lap Kok. Gemma is identified as an 'unaccompanied minor' (UM) when her air ticket is purchased, meaning the airline pays special attention to her and her needs, including during transit from Johannesburg to her destination, Cape Town, and vice versa. Nevertheless, she hasn't found flying to be all plain sailing. Barbara relates an incident that happened to nine-year-old Gemma: 'UMs are supposed to have open seats next to them, unless they are seated with other UMs. No male passengers are to sit next to UMs, who are usually placed near the galley so the crew can keep a close eye on them. During a flight to Johannesburg, a male passenger moved from his seat and took the seat at the end of my daughter's row. He started to talk to her and then moved to the seat next to her. She tried to ignore him but he carried on talking, then took her book to 'see what she was reading'. Gemma felt very uncomfortable that this man was being 'too friendly'. After half an hour, she left her seat, saying she had to go to the bathroom, and spoke to a stewardess, who asked the man to move back to his seat. She had to be very assertive in getting him to move. 'On that occasion, my sister met my daughter in Johannesburg. The head of airport security and the police were informed and the man was detained for questioning. He admitted he had been drinking and later wrote to apologise. The head of airport security said the man had 'intent' and that his actions warranted a full investigation. 'Although airlines cannot always be held responsible for the behaviour of passengers, the crew should have noticed a male passenger moving to sit next to a UM. Fortunately, Gemma is confident and had the presence of mind to speak up. Not all children will do so.' Children, unfortunately, are not immune to losing things, including passports. 'During another journey,' says Barbara, 'on reaching immigration, Gemma realised she'd lost her passport. She was left sitting near the counter for about an hour while airline staff tried to find it. My sister was waiting in the arrivals hall, not knowing the reason for the delay, even though the airline had her contact number. Gemma was in a state, wondering if anybody knew where she was, what would happen to her and whether she would be sent back to Hong Kong. Eventually, the passport was found on the plane. Perhaps UMs' passports should be kept together in a safe place on the aircraft.' Children may also be forgotten in the general rush to the boarding gate. Barbara says that before a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, Gemma was checked in by her father as a UM. 'She went through immigration but the airline forgot to collect her. Ten minutes before departure, with no stewardess in sight, the member of the ground crew responsible for closing the aircraft door had the presence of mind to escort her to the plane.' Gemma also ran into problems at the hands of a large group of passengers travelling together. 'Flying from Johannesburg to Hong Kong,' says Barbara, 'they asked my daughter to change seats. She told them she was a UM and was not allowed to be re-seated. Seeing empty seats next to her they insisted and twice forced her to move; Gemma ended up sitting between two male passengers. All this went on without any intervention from the crew, who appeared not to notice. 'Follow-up by the airline after such incidents has been excellent and now Gemma is upgraded to business class when possible. I don't expect her to be treated like a rock star all the time, but if that is the only way she is going to get secure, incident-free travel, that's what I'll insist on. There is a huge communications gap; the issues are not with the super-service response of senior management but with the cabin crew and ground staff and UM policies.' The safety of unaccompanied minors is not an area in which airlines are keen to be seen lacking. A Dragonair spokesman says: 'We do all we can to ensure children are well taken care of throughout their journey and that their parents have peace of mind. They are met by our staff at check-in, seated where our cabin crew can keep an eye on them and escorted through the destination airport to a parent or guardian. We never allow young passengers to travel onwards alone, even if a guardian requests it.' See www.dragonair.com for more details. Skyflyers Solo Inflight Escort service is available, at extra cost, to unaccompanied minors travelling on British Airways (BA). As part of this service, children aged between five and 17 on single- or multi-sector flights are looked after from check-in until they reach their destinations. The service must be requested at the time of booking and a minimum of 48 hours before departure. For more details, see www.britishairways.com . Unaccompanied children, having been checked in by customer-service ground escorts, are seated in designated areas of BA cabins to enable recognition and supervision, says Choi Fong, the carrier's marketing manager for China and the Philippines. 'A designated crew member will be nominated to look after children on board. On some of our long-haul flights, where several unaccompanied minors are travelling together, BA has dedicated escorts to assist the cabin crew,' she adds. 'On arrival, customer service staff take the children through to their parents or guardians, who must have their IDs checked and who must sign the Unaccompanied Minor form.' Virgin Atlantic also offers an unaccompanied minor service, available when the relevant adult fare is paid, says marketing manager Angelina Wong. A registration form carries details of dietary requirements, medication being taken, allergies and cabin baggage. Children are made the special responsibility of particular cabin crew, to a maximum ratio of one crew member to three children. At the destination airport, a Virgin staff member ensures all unaccompanied minors are collected by their parents or guardians. For more details, see www.virginatlantic.com .