Monday, December 20, 2010

Unaccompanied Minors!

Unaccompanied minors? What’s that? Some of you may just be wondering what that term means. Then others of you, from the title of this post alone, clicked on the link to read further because this past weekend you were at the airport sending your kids off to their other parent for the holidays. Am I right? I’m pretty sure I am.
The term ‘unaccompanied minors’ is used to describe when minor children (defined for airline purposes as kids 14 years old and under) fly without an adult. This means that the airline is responsible for their care and well-being as they travel from one adult to another. When marriages and other relationships end and the two parties live in separate cities, the two adults are generally the parents.
This weekend, I was one in the latter group above – as I took my 12 year old daughter to the airport to fly unaccompanied to see her mom for the two week Christmas break. It’s a routine we’ve perfected since we’ve had years and years of practice.
This whole area was so new to me when my former wife moved to New York but I quickly became a pro at it. Today, it’s pretty much a normal regular routine during the holidays or other breaks from school. It’s a stress-free transition to send our daughter or to pick her up when she travels alone. She’s quite well adjusted to the process.
But I remember at the outset, it was the most traumatic post-divorce experience for her and consequently for me. It started when she was 5 years old. I tried to travel with her each time because who really wants to put their little child on a flight with a bunch of strangers? But after a while, it became a bit costly and somewhat impractical to fly with her all the time.
The initial stage of this type of travel was awful, believe me; some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was a single dad, sending my little angel on an airplane all alone. I knew she would be ok but it can be really tough. I remember just becoming tense and on edge as we prepared for her to go because I knew the drama that would play out at the airport.
Here’s how it typically worked: We packed her small carry-on suitcase. I was sure to pack her portable DVD player along with her favorite movies so that she could watch them on the flight. We would travel to the airport and then came the stress. Just the thought that she was going to be flying alone made her cry. She loves both of her parents and in her ideal world, she would walk directly from dad to mom or from mom to dad. But going to the airport and have to leave one of us and be on an aircraft for 3 hours alone with strangers was a bit much for her.
As we got close to the airport and she looked and saw the airplanes, the crying would start. Then I had to fight back my own tears and tell her everything will be fine. At the airport we would check in and pay the unaccompanied minor fee (if we hadn’t already done so). Even though I wasn’t traveling, I’d have to get a gate pass to go with her to the gate.
We’d sit there and I would try to steer the conversation away from her leaving. Just talk about normal fun things that we do – like going to Disney World or Chucky Cheese’s. Talk about fun stuff she does when she’s with her mom. Basically anything to take her mind from the experience that was about to take place. Then came the inevitable – when an airline employee would get her from me and escort her to the aircraft. That was painful. She would cry aloud uncontrollably, saying, “Daddy, Daddy! I want my Daddy.” Let me repeat, she loves both her parents and enjoys every moment of being with each of us. When leaving her mom, I’m sure a similar scene took place. It's just that the process of going through this long distance, 3 hour trip between Miami and New York "unaccompanied" was traumatic for her.
On one occasion, with her crying and holding on to me and not wanting to go to the airline representative, the representative even said to me, “Sir, she doesn’t have to fly you know. You don’t have to put her on the flight.”
That incident was extreme but literally, every time she traveled unaccompanied, there were tears and discomfort on her part. And as a result, it made it so tough on me. I never wanted her to see me shed a tear in these situations because that would probably send her the wrong message. But after she went on the aircraft, I secretly wiped away my own tears.
You may wonder why I go through this detailed description of our experience. Well, I guarantee you that this past weekend and even today, there are thousands of people all over the world who are dealing with this very same scenario. Their kids are out of school for the holidays and are going to see the other parent. And necessary though it is to travel this way, it can also be a very stressful time for all involved, especially the kids.
I share this part of my story with you to say that the sadness and crying doesn’t last. When our kids arrive at their destination, they’re back to their normal selves. And sometimes, even as they get on the plane, they’re back to normal. One thing that’s worked quite well for us is getting our daughter a cell phone. When she boards the plane, we talk or send each other text messages while I wait for the plane to leave.
Just like any new routine, it may take some time but the kids do adjust. My daughter’s practically a professional unaccompanied traveling minor now. She knows the routine – one parent drops her off and the other parent is always waiting at the destination to meet her.
And how did I get her to stop crying? I promised her that each time she didn’t cry or get sad, I’d do something special for her – like take her to her favorite restaurant or get a new DVD that she really wants. Periodically she still did cry but I told her that’s quite ok to cry so she shouldn’t feel badly about that. It’s been a couple years since we’ve had any such issues though, thankfully.
As moms and dads, we’re not alone. There are others like us who go through these experiences. One of the good things about this way of my daughter traveling is that I get to meet other parents like me when we’re at the airport. Just this weekend I met a mom whose son traveled on my daughter’s flight. Her son is 10 and he’s been flying unaccompanied for 5 years now. We had a friendly, spirited conversation about our experiences. And I got to tell her a bit about The Upbeat Dad and my vision. She was quite interested in it and promised she would check out the blog and also recommend to her son’s father that he check it out as well.
Just like any situation in life that may appear less than ideal, the whole unaccompanied minor experience works out quite well. It’s not always practical for us to travel with our children or for us to find another adult who’s traveling so that they can travel together. The airlines are quite accommodating and even though in recent times their fees for this service have increased, they do a great job overall in ensuring that our kids travel in comfort and safety.
If your kids have are traveling unaccompanied to see you this holiday season, have a great time with them. If they’re traveling away from you, enjoy yourself in their absence till they return. Just always let them know you’re thinking of them. And tell them, as I always tell my daughter when she travels, “Whether or not you are physically with me, you’re always in my heart and that’s all that matters.” Try saying something like this and watch how it brightens their day!

The Upbeat Dad


  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I can sympathize with how hard this must be, for all involved.

    My daughter has been the "unaccompanied minor" many times, but always to go see grandparents or a friend. For us, there's never been crying or not wanting to leave. We made a big effort to turn it into an adventure the first time (helped by the fact that she loves to fly and loves to show herself the master of things). She was 5 the first time; she's 9 now, and it's become completely routine.

    I'm thinking that the difference is the context. It's not really about flying alone - it's the going from one parent to the other that's so hard. I remember having to do it, and I didn't like it a bit, even if it was only a short ride on the bus.

    It's good to hear that it has worked out well for you. It's certainly a marvelous thing that this service exists and the kids can do this.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it's the thought of her going from one parent to another. And the fact that we had a not so friendly divorce let our daughter know that there was some underlying tension - though it was not voiced around her.

    She's older and wiser now and my former wife and I have a positive working relationship so now everyone's on the same page.

    Thanks again for chiming in on this.