An Unaccompanied Minor

35 Comments
airplane-landing Image via Shutterstock

As summer rolls forward, it seems everyone’s talking about family vacation plans, including plans to send young offspring off to theme parks, famous campgrounds, and animated wonderlands with grandparents, giving moms and dads much-needed breaks to be adult couples instead of parents for two blissful weeks out of the year.

When my son Jake was six, we were living on Maui and my parents lived in Oregon. They called that summer and announced that they wanted to take Jake to Disneyland in California. After much discussion on the best way to get Jake to them, my mother informed me that she’d already called the airline, and they said Jake could fly without either parent, as an “unaccompanied minor.”

He’s six, Mom. SIX. As in “years old.” Not only that, he was small.

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So I’m looking across the room at my small child, with his Hawaiian-style shaved head and little round glasses, looking like an adorable tiny Harry Potter, and she’s going on about him getting on a 747 by himself and flying to Portland.

“It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “They assign a flight attendant to him, and he’s never left alone. She’s responsible for him the entire way. Besides, it’s a direct flight. We’ll pick him up in Portland.”

After another several minutes of debate, with Jake jumping up and down, repeatedly and happily yelling “I’m going to Disneyland!! I’m going to Disneyland!!” I put down the paper bag I was wheezing into and agreed to hand over my child to some unknown flight attendant, trusting she wouldn’t inadvertently send him to Botswana, resulting in a massive, worldwide child-hunt, followed by a made-for-TV movie called “I Gave My Child to a Stranger and They Lost Him. Bad Mommy.”

Jake and I went to the airport, where I filled out the eight page, triplicate forms, attached to copies of his birth certificate, my driver’s license, and a list of emergency contact names of every single person in three states and two countries that he was related to in any way. Jake was beside himself with excitement about traveling “all by himself,” and I was a teary mess. “Don’t worry,” the flight attendant smiled, “We haven’t lost one yet.” Yet?? OMG. Several minutes later, I put my only child on the plane and cried all the way home.

He had the time of his life.

Two weeks later, as I was anxiously waiting for my baby to get off the plane, armed with the 30 pieces of ID required to take a child out of the airport, I finally saw his smiling face, and the thought briefly crossed my mind that he looked older. More confident. More young boy than small child. But as I was trying to process the changes in my son (could this trip have actually been good for him??), I instinctively burst into relieved tears that he made it and was safely home where I could see him.

Completely oblivious to the commands of the attendants to “Stay behind the yellow line, ma’am. BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE,” I rushed forward, bent down and grabbed my child in a full-body mom-hug, crying uncontrollably, while assuring him he was missed every single day. (Yeah. It was every 6-year-old’s worst nightmare. Being mauled by your sobbing mother. In public. That would no doubt come up in his therapy years later, but I couldn’t stop myself. My baby was home.)

Usually, when you pick up an “unattended minor” at the airport, the ID requirements are intense. No simple driver’s license will do. The legal ramifications of letting someone walk out of the airport with the wrong child are the stuff zillion dollar settlements are made of, and the airlines are determined to avoid this mistake at all costs. So at the time of the ticket purchase, you’re given a list of paperwork they’ll need to see before any child is handed over to your custody.

As I reached into my purse for the required documents, the flight attendant just smiled and said, dryly, “And you must be the mother.” “Yes,” I sniffed, still clinging to my boy like a life raft. “Jake,” she asked, just to make sure, “Is this your mom?” Jake, sharing a glimpse of what was to become his trademark one-liner wit, looked up at her and said, “Well, she wouldn’t be my first choice, but yeah, she’s my mom.”

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14 years later, Jake would be flying to Iraq, and we would relive this experience on a different level. We dropped him off, and I cried all the way home. When he arrived home a year later, safe and sound where I could see him, I cried again and mauled him in public. This time, he grinned and replied, “It’s okay, Mom. Go crazy.”

And so I’ve decided that children (no matter their age) should never be further away than you can drive to see them. It’s just too damn hard on their mamas. And when he gets redeployed, I’m going with him. But I’m not telling him just yet. I just might end up flying as an “unaccompanied mother.”

Comments

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  1. 1

    says

    Ha – Vikki, I DO get it! I just had my 16-year-old travel alone for the first time to of all places…Oregon.:) Apparently, when they’re 15 or older, they can travel with just their learner’s permit or school ID and are expected to know how to navigate a strange airport by themselves. I made my son text me every 15 yards as soon as he went through security (I could have gone through security with him, but the airline wanted me to pay $100 to make that happen…I love my son, but um, no.) Anyway, he had to change planes in Portland and the whole time I kept thinking he would end up in Alaska….somehow he made it though!

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    • 2

      says

      Emily, Those flights are events I’ll remember forever, even though Jake has no recollection! The first time he not only flew unaccompanied, but changed planes, I thought I would stroke out before he got to his destination. Two bottles of wine and a half-dozen frantic phone calls later from his crazed mother, he landed safely! :)

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  2. 4

    Laura A. Lord says

    I don’t know whether to chalk it up to raging, uncontrollable hormones…or the fact that the end of this reminded me so much of the day my brother left…Either way, I’m a sobbing mess over here. Fantastic post, as always. I’m going to go take out stock in Kleenex.

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  3. 6

    says

    OH MY GOSH, I’m totally going through the same thing, just posted yesterday about it. Sent my baby away to sleepaway camp. I want her back. Tomorrow can’t come fast enough…

    On the same note, I’ve been training her and my 6yo to travel to Portland, OR without me too… hopefully next year. Camp Grandpa! I think I can do it… I think I can…

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  4. 10

    says

    This is such a perfectly timed article to read! I just took my daughter on her first plane ride at 8 months old. We were flying to Orlando so there were a ton of unaccompanied minors on our trips! There was even a set of 3 siblings flying together. I looked at them and thought…Oh my gosh, what that mom must be going through, having all of her kids on one flight! Yikes!!
    Such a great read. Thank you!

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  5. 14

    Leslie Roberson says

    My mother lives in Mexico. One year my husband and I went to visit and our son, who was 18, flew there a week later. It was his first time flying alone. His flight was delayed for hours. We had no idea why. I don’t know if the gate personnel didn’t know or if it was the language barrier. As it turns out the plane began to fall apart (on the inside) and they had to turn around. I was so distraught by the time he arrived I too crossed the yellow line. However, because it was in Mexico, I did not have friendly flight attendants telling me to get back but soldiers with machine guns!

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  6. 16

    says

    Haha ‘unaccompanied mother’. That would so be me. My son is currently 6 and there would have to be a very good reason for me to send him on a flight himself. I know he would love it and entertain everyone, but mommy here would be a mess. I was an unaccompanied minor at 12 years old on a flight, and my mom was the same way.

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  7. 19

    LeahK says

    I know it is traumatic to the first time parent, but to put things in perspective children as young as five fly unaccompanied on a routine basis to visit family, especially if they have divorced parents who live in different parts of the county. I flew for 3-4 trips a year to see my dad starting in second grade (more in my teen years) and my kids started flying to see their grandpa when they reached the five year old mark. To families like ours this trip to the airport is almost as routine as getting on the school bus. It may be traumatic for the parent, but for the kid it is a normal part of growing up.

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    • 21

      says

      Sorry, Leah, wrong response! Geez, my mouse is apparently more responsive than I thought (or I just have fat fingers), and it rolled down to your comment reply box. ANYWAY, Thank you for commenting! I think children are much stronger and more resourceful than we give them credit for! It’s the parents who are bawling and worrying. The KIDS are having a ball!

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