Your Kids On An Airliner, Flying Alone? Do It Right.
Little big man standing by the gate, already gone.
Mom’s there, the pain of the thousand miles about to shove themselves between her and the boy draws her eyes into a squint that you know damn well is there for a reason. But he’s already gone, his eyes set elsewhere, the leaving now a mere formality etched in stone beyond his reach or doing. The flight migration of the solo kids: coast to coast, north to south, the sad winds of divorce carry kids aloft.
It’s year round but especially heavy around Memorial Day. Holidays? Summer? Solomon: two halves of one is still less than a whole. But it’s all we got–decreed; so chin up, little nomad.
Way too familiar, and I’m too foolish to pretend I don’t notice. Last minute, before boarding myself and stepping into the cockpit, staying out of everyone’s hair until about ten minutes prior to push, I do what I can. Mom’s there, bereft, dying a little inside, not even hiding her pain. What can I do?
I’ll get to that. But more importantly, what can you do if you’re the parent sending off your child?
According to the Department of Transportation, more than seventy thousand minors will fly unaccompanied this year. Big Fact Two, according to Parenting Magazine, is that parental preparation will make all the difference for those children who do fly solo this year.
There, the authorities have spoken. Now, hear me, the guy standing on the bridge on both ends of the voyage.
First, parents: ante up. All major airlines now have programs to care for kids who fly “Unaccompanied,” or “UM:” Unaccompanied Minor.” They are not not free. But they are essential. Your child will be logged in to the system, your credentials and those of whomever is on the other end will be verified. So whoever picks up your child will be positively identified by official documentation: driver’s license, passport or government issued ID. I watch it every week: our flight attendants will walk your child out and verify that they are delivered to the correct person.
Mid flight? You say you’ve booked them on a thru-flight, meaning no aircraft change enroute? GMAB! I can’t tell you how many times my flight sequence from one coast to the other, same flight number, supposedly same aircraft, gets changed. “Take all of your belongings of the plane,” the agent will say on the P.A., “and proceed from this terminal to the new gate in the other terminal.”
Saved $100 bucks on the U.M. fee, did you, because “TravelSuperDuper.com” promised you a stop but no aircraft change? Don’t even think about it. Because no, the flight attendants won’t take care of the switch because they might not even be scheduled on that next flight. Want to see if your little one can navigate a major airport? Pay the fee.
What you get it this: signatures and verification will follow your child every step of the way. Do I know how many kids are flying alone on my jet? No. Do I know how many officially designated Unaccompanied Minors are on my flight? You bet I do–just as with any special or hazardous cargo or armed individuals, I know who and where they are. And I take it one step further, as I do with armed passengers: I don’t care what I’m “supposed” to be doing, I’ll take the time during boarding to meet eye to eye, say, hello, and tell an Unaccompanied, or “UM” as we call them, by name “we’re glad you’re here. It’s going to be a good flight and if you need anything, you let us know.”
Important to me, hope it is to them. Regardless, when we have the UM vouchers, now my crew knows who they are and where they’re sitting. And someone will hand-carry them to where they need to be.
But even more practical, in my experience, is that the UM process allows you to accompany your child through security and to their boarding gate, as well as permitting someone you designate (have their driver’s license number or other government issued ID info when you check in) meet them at their arrival gate.
Second, send them on board calorized. That is, make sure they’ve eaten recently or have with them some snacks they can manage. Yes, there’s “buy on board” food on many flights–but the transaction is cashless: credit card only. Make sure they have water when they board too–get it on the secure side of the airport because you can’t take it through security.
Pack them sensibly: make sure their bag that they take on board is manageable for them. Don’t count on someone else handling their bag, and make it one that can fit under the seat in front of them, as little ones won’t have much luck with the overhead bins. Anything else you need to send with them–check it at the ticket counter.
Do this: Google “airlines” and “unaccompanied minors,” and be sure to read the airline of your choice’s procedures, plus the many decent parenting articles with tips on UM travel–like this big one I’m going to give you: say your good-byes at home. That’s what the kids are leaving, and that’s where they’ll return. The airport is part of the journey–don’t make it part of the good-bye. Be matter of fact from that point and it will be easier for you and your child.
And finally, show up. I mean on the receiving end, and I mean on time. Flashback, Christmas Eve, a west coast destination, late evening. Our little trooper is standing by the ticket agent as the crew deplanes. The agent has her paperwork, waiting for a late parent. On Christmas Eve. Twenty minutes after our arrival. And we were late.
My crew is tired. Our van is at the curb waiting to take us to the hotel–but nobody’s leaving our little UM. We wait. We hate the parent who didn’t leave two hours early and camp out so as to meet our child at the gate. Be there, whatever it takes.
Back to our departure. Mom ready to crater, her son already on my jet. I approached her from behind.
“We’ll take good care of him. It’ll be all right.” I’m lying. It’s the heart fractured into a thousand shards of smoked glass, hers, that will never be all right ever again. He’ll be okay–the kids usually are once they’re under way. They do their leaving before pushback; the parents are left on the death watch in the terminal. And kids on some level perceive that–so like I said, good-byes are best said at home.
“Look,” I offered, “you want me to call you when we get there? To let you know everything’s fine?’
She put her number into my phone, in tears. I walked onto my jet fighting mine. Parents everywhere get to do this, as some court decreed, over and over till the kids are old enough to decide travel and visitation details for themselves. It’ll never be easy–but make it the best it can be: set them up to be cared for enroute.
I texted the woman after we arrived, watching her little guy walk away with his “other family,” and I imagine she breathed a little easier. Not sure, but I know I did.