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 “” 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.

18 Responses to “Your Kids On An Airliner, Flying Alone? Do It Right.”

  1. Another great post, Captain Chris. You ARE going to hear about this one. I’m thinking a little before I write, but expect an earful. The early thought is dumping the fee-paid UMs on the FAs or other staff. While the failures may be few, wthen it a fee-paid kid and the arrangements ARE properly made on both ends – and it still gets screwed up, – it is NOT the FA’s responsibility, Sir Captain. Your line’s SOPS may deligate a lot of the functional stuff ti FAs and gate agents, but that fee-paid UM remains your charge until properly delivered. If the others do it properly, great. When something goes wrong – and will at times – and you know it, that fee-paid UM is essentially Your Kid for the duration. More later. A great post and I love it! Those UMs make money for your line, just as do the awful sandwhices and those $5 sodas – or even plain water. The fee-paid UM needs at least as much as attention as does the paid baggage or that can of Coke. More soon. -C.

    • I think we’re in violent agreement on this.

      Except for the part about the sandwiches: I often pass on the First Class fare we get in the cockpit in favor of the Buy on Board sandwich–especially the turkey.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

      • Love it! -C.

      • I guess my typing has not improved. I’m going to agree with you, if strongly and then let it go… First, any ‘parent’ who ships a minor kid without the UM attention – and paying the fee – is a fool at best and probably a felon. Doing so does not fit my definition of proper parenting. Do the l’lines ever decline UM PAX when weather or other operational events suggest troubles? UM is bad enough, but if the flight is diverted, it gets even worse. I guess we are fortunate in that events related to UMs are extremely rare. Still, even one is too many. With a most lines do a better job with UMs than with live (at boarding) animals. And the two have a lot in common. Ouch. I hear you about the food. Even when flying domestic up-class, I often bring my own sammich or board as pre-fed cargo. Very long hauls or international is on a different page and one just has to know the current offerings. If the most serious annoyance is having to pay for clean water, I’ll remain annoyed and continue to buy water. In the end, the UM thing is a poor choice for parents and kids, but life happens. If is also an unfair load on crews and other line staffers, but most lines still want the business. I have to believe that it is a no-win for the crews, FA, gate/ground or the poor Captain. I always enjoy your posts abd I often chuckle to myself when I remember that you teach English on the side and have, apparenrly, and ABD doctorate in the subject. You are a Wordsmith. Reading your words, that be fun, dude! -Craig.

  2. Fantastic post! I knew that they had a program in place, but I did not know it was this detailed.

    Even the best laid plans need a few back ups for just in case situations. As with this UM program, at least the biggest concerns (kidnapping or child safety) in my opinion at least are preventable.

    Thank-you for this post! I am passing it onto my sisters!!!

  3. Excellent post as always Chris. I will be flying from Atlanta to Cleveland in the morning, my first flight since I started following your blog. I anticipate being a much wiser, better informed passenger.

  4. Luc Coulombe Says:

    Must have been the sun in my eyes causing them to water a bit when I read your post. You’re an all around good guy Chris. Thanks.

    • I have to agree with Luc. The sun was bothering my eyes too…. 🙂

      What you did was very kind.

      (speaking as a mom) 🙂

  5. A pilot with a heart. Awwww…. when is your next flight? I want to send my nephew on it. One way! He’s 19, though. LOL

    Thanks for the post! Keep them coming!!

  6. blackwatertown Says:

    Shhh! You’d better watch out. All of a sudden you’ll be getting all the UM’s on your flights. No adults. Just children delivered into safe hands. Yours.

  7. Tom Seagraves Says:

    Great post Captain. I had the pleasure of sitting next to a UM once. He was 11 years old and a real pleasure to talk to. The only problem was late in the flight we had quite a lot of turbulence during the descent and he got airsick. I was happy to make sure he had a barf bag in time. Felt sorry that he had to go through this without a parent with him. It just so happens that this took place on your airline and the flight attendants took good care of him.

  8. Thank you for a great post.

  9. Whaow nice post Captain,
    On my flight to Frankfurt there was also a UM onboard, but no one on the other end… I remember one the FA’s walking away with him trying to get in contact with some family… If I had to pick up my own child I’d be there an hour earlier…

  10. Yes!! All the bad jokes aside, how on earth could a parent NOT arrange to meet the UM kid at the gate, even if the plane is late? S/he is your kid, right? We do what is right, I guess usually… Chris, as the responsible soul, the flight’s Captain, have you ever encountered a kid that appeared to be intentionally abandoned – to your airline? While the civil authorities can and will step in quickly if necessary, what an awful thing. Ever happened to you or to your knowledge? I tink I read about a couple of cases somes years ago, but the details are not clear. How awful! Kids on airplanes may be (and ARE) an awful experience at times, but no soul could wish them to be abandoned kids on a flight to no where. WE just don’t do that – I hope.
    For one, I’ve heard enough about this for now. Unless there are some nearly perfect answers available, I’ve probably heard enough – for now. You have generated some thought and that is a good thing. As I run like hell, Next Topic, please… -C.

    • You’re always in such a hurry to move on. That’s always an option–an individual option. The group? The blog? Wide open and for as long as anyone wants to discuss UMs, we sure will. No rush.

      And has there ever not been another topic? You remind me of Seinfeld’s comment about the TV remote: “women want to know what’s on–men want to know what else is on.”

      Patience, my man. If we’d rushed off this topic I’d have missed all of the good contributions so many have posted here.

      Or, you’re welcome to move along–we’ll catch up with you later.

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  11. As always a brilliant post! As a freelancer going through air miles like they were corn flakes at breakfast, I will keep all this in mind when my little trooper will be flying to see me alone in a few years. Luckily my wife is with him on all his flights at the moment 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

  12. Chris, thanks for the great bog (found it after your appearance on the airplane geeks) and the thoughtfulness of your posts. As a parent I can really empathise with this post. Your writing allows me to put myself in your shoes almost, but especially in this post. It shows great insight to do your job but still remember that passenger travel, with all the technology, responsibility and time pressures, is still about people, with all kinds of stories, and all kinds of emotions. Often sadness too, and hard goodbyes. I think your advice is excellent.
    I’ve flown a couple of times with valuable carry- on cargo, that has been looked after by the flight crew, and the experience has been great. Boarded first, met the crew & Captain, flew happy in knowledge things were taken care of. Disembarked first after landing- outstanding service each time- and I was only economy, so money didn’t come into it. Those of us who sometimes come to your attention on board, we do appreciate the care and courtesy, thank you.

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