An Unaccompanied Minor

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.”

About the writer

Vikki Claflin is a humor writer, author, public speaker, and former newspaper columnist. Her recently published book Shake, Rattle & Roll With It: Living and Laughing with Parkinson’s chronicles her hilarious, and sometimes poignant journey dealing with Parkinson’s disease, and is available at She also writes the award-winning humor blog Laugh Lines. Find her at

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kay 1 year ago

Having flown as an unaccompanied minor back in the 70’s I can see your son’s side. As I recall I had a blast. However as a mother and grandmother I also feel your pain. Our granddaughter lives in florida. Her mother flew up to Indiana with her then left her with us. My husband, her grandfather flew home with her. It was more expensive this way but gave everyone peace of mind. The world is much scarier than it was 40 years ago.

One TIPsy Chick 1 year ago

I remember having to fly alone from Florida to NY when I was 6. It was a little scary but I obviously survived. I don’t think the flight attendants had the same responsibility back then because I barely remember any interaction with her. I don’t think I could do it with my own kids. Mine, 10 & 11, went to camp last month. It was their second year in a row and I felt more anxiety this time. Of course I felt even worse when they got home because one of them didn’t have such a great experience. How am I going to react when they go to college???

Melinda 1 year ago

I know this feeling! My daughter will be 11 in a couple of weeks and she is currently across the country visiting her dad for the summer. He lives in FL and my daughter and I live in WA. This is the third summer she’s spent with him, flying by herself. I get nervous every time! But I’m hopeful that this piece of her life will help her become a strong, independent woman. She’s also an only child, so that can be a challenge as well. I freak out a little, I love having a break for the summer, but when I get to the airport and see her come through that gate, I grin like a fool! Can’t wait to pick her up soon :)

Lala 1 year ago

Ahhh the tears! lol I could barely sleep 2 nights ago when my daughter slept at her grandmas just 10 min away, yet somehow I imagine my parents (in Oregon lol) are fine with me a 16 hour at minimum with no possible direct flight away from them! Now I feel guilty.

Stephanie Lormand 1 year ago

My parents put me on a plane in NJ to spend the summer with my grandparents in Louisiana. The airlines seated me with two newlyweds on the way to their honeymoon.

I often wonder if 4+ hours on a plane with an unaccompanied 5 year old resulted in a doubling-up of the birth control!

I loved reading this! I hadn’t thought about that trip in decades! 😀

thedoseofreality 1 year ago

Nope, my eyes are just dry. Sniff, sniff! I love this so much!! :)-Ashley

Christine 1 year ago

Thanks for writing this. My parents just offered to have the kids next summer and I’m glad I’m not the only one with these feelings :)

Shannon 1 year ago

I go through this every summer. My daughter who is 7 goes to visit her father and has been flying as an unaccompanied since she was 5. Every year I put on a smile and hand her over to the flight attendant and watch as my brave fearless girl boards the plane. As soon as she gets on the plane I’m that crazy lady sitting alone, watching the plane and quietly crying. Sometimes there are other moms who are going through the same thing and I try to reassure them that it will be ok, other times it is just me. After the plane takes off I beeline for the restroom to clean my face and walk out with my head high knowing that it will only be 8 weeks until I am back at the airport but this time it’s happy tears.

mary 1 year ago

I actually live in The Netherlands and have seen all the emotion and grief first hand…. I guess I take it that hard because this happened so close to home with people that could have been my neighbors. Actually, only 1 village away 3 families died in that crash. I was just thinking maybe better to die all at once than learning that your child (or any other family member for that matter) was on that plane. It is just so immensely sad and tragic.

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

It’s definitely scary, Mary! I think I was more concerned about him being re-routed to some foreign country than the plane going down, but either visual is hard no a mom! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. :)

Mary 1 year ago

What with the recent MH17 crash in the Ukraine….there is no way I would let my child fly alone.

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Mrs. Fun, You’re right! It DOES get easier each time, but boy, those first few are tough on mamas. I was always when he was in my line of sight. They didn’t call us “helicopter moms” then. We were just over-protective! :)

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Shannon, “Free Range Kids”? I love it! My generation used to call them “latch key kids.” :)

MrsFun 1 year ago

My kids fly by themselves or together all the time. My 12 year old is currently in CA with grandparents, his 14 year old will join him next week. And my daughter leaves for colleges in a couple weeks. I do think the more you do it the easier it gets because it was really hard when I sent my daughter on her first ever plane ride, all by herself, 7 years ago. Now my kids fly by themselves all the time. I don’t really worry anymore because I know they are having fun and experiencing life away from me. It’s a good thing.

Shannon 1 year ago

There is a whole movement out there about encouraging parents to let their kids have the freedom to do not only big things like these but also small everyday steps that teach them independence and confidence. Free Range Kids – check it out!

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Alyssa, I think it doesn’t matter how old they are. If it’s their first time flying alone without us, we worry! But Jake was SO YOUNG. He had a ball. I was a total mess. Isn’t that always the way? :)

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Leslie, even at 18, we worry about them! And you’re right, that yellow line can get you shot in certain countries! They obviously don’t understand mothers!

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

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!

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Tara, thanks so much! Jake is awesome, and not surprisingly, very independent! :)

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Thanks, Leah! Yes, Jake is amazing. I got a good one, as my mother says! Thanks for commenting!

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Thanks, Malory! I felt like the worst mother EVER, letting my baby get on the plane without me. Turns out he loved it and made lots more trips after that. It never got any easier for his mama! :)

LeahK 1 year ago

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.

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Thanks, Pam! That’s about the nicest thing you can say to a humor writer! :)

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Kristi, OMG, summer sleepaway camp is the WORST for parents. Our babies are so LITTLE at that age! Have a nice bottle of wine on hand, and some chocolate. He’ll be fine! :)

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

Laura, you’re making me all teary just thinking about it! We love our boys, don’t we? Thanks for sharing your comments!

Alyssa 1 year ago

Also, the clouds behind the plane in that photo look like smoke. I was momentarily concerned.

Alyssa 1 year ago

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.

Leslie Roberson 1 year ago

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!

Tara Simon 1 year ago

Who left out these damn onions?? Beautiful story, you are an awesome Mom and Jake is an equally awesome son!

Malory 1 year ago

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!

Pam 1 year ago

Vicki, I literally laughed out loud. Loved this!!!

Kristi 1 year ago

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…

Laura A. Lord 1 year ago

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.

Vikki Claflin 1 year ago

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! :)

Emily 1 year ago

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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