Young Alberta girls left in police care after Lynx Air flight cancelled

By Erick Espinosa

Thirteen-year-old Lily and 11-year old Kaylee are no strangers to flying. The sisters who live in Alberta have taken flights to New Brunswick to visit their biological dad in the past. But in July, their return flight home didn’t go as planned, leaving the pair stranded at Canada’s largest international airport and their mother receiving a call from police that would leave any parent shaken.

“They’ve been part of the unaccompanied minors program with WestJet and even Air Canada,” says the girls’ stepfather, Peter Walsh, alongside his wife Aletha Walsh from their home in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Peter says their daughters’ biological father had booked two tickets from Saint John to Edmonton by way of Toronto with Lynx Air, one of Canada’s newest airlines launching in April of this year.

“So according to everything that we understood, when their biological father got there and went into the process of booking these tickets, the airline was aware of their ages. They had to be aware when they booked the tickets.”

Peter says the girls checked in for their flight at the airport in Saint John on July 22, made their way through security with ease and handed their boarding passes at the gate with no one expressing concern that they were travelling unaccompanied until they were in the air en route to Toronto.

“According to our girls, our daughters, the stewardess was the one who looked at them and said ‘wait a minute, you’re minors. You’re not travelling with any adults. We have to move you from where you are, into the front of the plane to keep an eye on you.'”

But in keeping with the information stated on Lynx Air’s website, Lily who was 13 at the time, referred to as a young adult by the airlines standards, was permitted to supervise her 11-year-old sister on the flight.

“Children under five years of age must be accompanied by their parent or a guardian who is at least 16 years of age. All other children must be supervised by a passenger of 12 years or older. Young adults aged 12 and over can fly unaccompanied,” the website states under the ‘travelling with children and infants’ portion of their website, with no mention of an unaccompanied minors service commonly offered with other larger airlines.

“It’s Lynx’s responsibility to have them out on the first available flight whether that would’ve been Air Canada or WestJet.”

But a different set of rules came into effect when Lily and Kaylee arrived at Pearson, the moment their one-hour layover turned into a lengthy overnight delay.

“I ended up speaking to the stewardess and pilot for the flight and was told that they were having issues with the manifest,” explains Aletha, who was in regular contact with her oldest daughter, Lily, by phone.

Aletha says she relaxed a bit when informed that the issue was fixed and that her daughters would be boarding shortly. That was until Lily called her back in tears.

“I’m like what’s going on? Talk to mom. Breathe. And then all of a sudden I’m speaking to an RCMP officer or OPP,” describes Aletha, who later discovered through CityNews that it was instead Peel Regional Police who responded to a call for unaccompanied minors.

“And they are telling us because they are unaccompanied minors, there is nobody there that could be the guardian for them. If we don’t have them on the first flight, we are taking them into custody. I’m going to have to go to Ontario and basically have to battle the court to get my children back.”

Through the call the parents discovered that their children’s flight was ultimately cancelled, with the airline allegedly providing no rebooking option until the following week to the passengers — a relatable scene for many Canadian travellers this past summer.

Aletha says that the pilot had previously reassured her over the phone that the girls would be rebooked in case the delay led to a cancellation.

“It’s Lynx’s responsibility to have them out on the first available flight whether that would’ve been Air Canada or WestJet. But then when the time came for them to be possibly rebooked, all this was going down and all the staff left. They were just abandoned in the airport,” Aletha says, referring to Lynx staff.

Lily and Kaylee arrived at Pearson Airport around 10:30 p.m. on July 22 and were supposed to fly out from Pearson to Edmonton at 11:30 p.m. but then the flight was pushed to 1:30 a.m. before being eventually cancelled.

In an email to CityNews, Peel Regional Police confirm that the officers contacted the children’s mother to either have them picked up or make arrangements for another flight.

“Once the mother had made the flight arrangements, the officers remained with the children until they got on the plane,” writes Peel Police spokesperson Const. Sarah Patten.

Lily, 13, and Kaylee, 11, were left in police's care at Pearson Airport after their Lynx Air flight from Saint John to Edmonton via Toronto was cancelled in July 2022.

Lily, 13, and Kaylee, 11, were left in police’s care at Pearson Airport after their Lynx Air flight from Saint John to Edmonton via Toronto was cancelled in July 2022. (Photo provided to CityNews)

According to police, when children who are left unattended without a guardian to look after them for a lengthy or indefinite period of time, officers will contact the Children’s Aid Society to give them a place of safety until arrangements can be made to pick them up.

“Now granted it was great that they were there. They were looking out for our kids,” says Peter. “But the issue is that when you’re a parent, you’re getting threatened with your kids being placed into the foster care system, not through any fault of your own. And now you know that it’s going to be a fight to get your kids back.”

The couple felt helpless explaining that they had no family in Toronto and no one at Lynx Air offering assistance to rebook their children on the next available flight, which happened to be with Air Canada the following day at 8:15 a.m. And while they connected with an Air Canada agent to book the flight, they encountered yet again another hurdle.

“If we don’t make sure they are being held to a higher standard then they shouldn’t be allowed to operate. It’s as simple as that.”

Under Air Canada’s age restrictions, the unaccompanied minor service is mandatory for children aged 8-11 who are travelling alone and optional for youth 12-17. The service requires proper paperwork well in advance and arrangements for the airline to have an employee fly with the child. So if they were to return home that same day, their only available option was for Kaylee to travel with someone 16 years of age or older.

Peter says a lawyer who was a fellow passenger at the airport came to their rescue.

“This is where this lawyer comes in that happens to hear everything, knew exactly what was going on,” he says.

“She essentially agreed to have the kids put under her [name]. So my wife had to arrange to send her money to purchase the plane tickets, and she booked the two of them under her. And that’s how they got out as luck would have it.”

CityNews reached out to Lynx Air multiple times inquiring about this specific case, the reason for the flight cancellation and if they were made aware of what had occurred, but did not receive a response to our inquiries at the time of this publication.

“While the Air Transport Regulations compel airlines to explicitly set out their policies in respect of unaccompanied minors (UMs) in their tariffs, the CTA does not have the authority to regulate what that policy must be,” says Martine Maltais, a senior communications advisor for Canadian Transportation Agency, in reference to travel within Canada.

This is why the unaccompanied minors service and travel age restrictions can vary from airline to airline, with some not offering the service for connecting flights and others confirming that children are prioritized in the case of flight disruptions through the service.

What is not uncommon is for a carrier to allow a passenger 12 years and up to fly as a young adult, with some even permitting the young flyer to accompany a child a few years their junior. Essentially presenting a risk for any parent, as it does not offer a guarantee that your child will be prioritized in the case of a flight disruption or cancellation.

And though the new travel regulations, which came into effect in September, offer assurance of a rebooking or refund if the airline cannot provide a new reservation within 48 hours, it still leaves those young passengers vulnerable.

“If we don’t make sure they are being held to a higher standard then they shouldn’t be allowed to operate. It’s as simple as that. These guys put this into a situation where it was child neglect. It was one hundred percent endangering minors,” says Peter.

The couple were forced to pay an additional $1,700 for the new flights and were only compensated $125 per ticket after the airlines confirmed that the delay in July was due to a controllable event. An amount that equals roughly half of the cost they had paid for the original tickets with Lynx Air.

“Wholeheartedly if I was in that position, being a mom, even anybody with a conscience, I’m like no, I’ll do this,” says Aletha. “We want to make sure they get home safe. They were just left. They were completely abandoned. If it wasn’t for the other people in the plane, they would’ve had nobody.”

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