It’s Gate C29, Do You Know Where Your Child Is?

Cancelled flights from Paris to Vegas, Heathrow to Dulles. Orange alerts and car searches heading into airport parking lots. But what of the gaping security gap when it comes to children flying alone?

Travel was up this year, especially high at Thanksgiving. I fit the demographic, deciding after a two-year, fear-induced hiatus to give air travel another shot, some Valium at the ready. Though I can’t say I enjoyed being off the ground, the time saved over driving to our destination (thirteen hours each way) encouraged me. The trip also reminded me of how much my son, Henry, loves flying. So when his faraway father invited him to visit for Christmas, I decided to let him go.

As I attempted to check him in, an American Airlines ticketing agent informed me I needed to pay an extra $40 each way since Henry is under fourteen. I disputed this with her and then her supervisor. I knew better, I explained, because we’d already been through a major ordeal on this very subject when he flew unattended in 2000.

That time, I was incorrectly informed by numerous AA personnel that the fee-based, unaccompanied child escort service was optional. So I opted not to use it. He boarded his flight no questions asked. A flight attendant yanked him from the return flight however, informing him he was too young to fly alone, yelling at him for having "an irresponsible mother," and refusing to take him seriously when he calmly offered to pay her to be accompanied. Though he was finally allowed back on, the plane was delayed and, on arrival, the attendant treated me as if I’d committed some crime, not stopping to wonder how my son made it past so many of her co-workers.

After a long angry letter to American, I received an apology, some flight coupons and a statement that house policy actually prohibits children from flying unaccompanied until they are thirteen, a fact I duly noted. Hence my surprise this last trip to be told he suddenly needed to be fourteen.

I explained to the supervisor I did not have eighty spare dollars, which would increase the ticket a prohibitive 40%. She refused to waive the fee. So I went against everything I ever taught my son and, steering him to another counter, I instructed him to lie and claim being fourteen. But this agent, too, requested an extra $40, saying he needed to be fifteen. Another supervisor, another debate, with no one seeming to know the real age requirement but everyone trying to squeeze extra money out of me, admonishing that the rules "have changed since 9/11" and "it" is a federal regulation. The implication was clear enough— if I questioned their policy I was being anti-American (the airline and the country) and perhaps even pro-terrorist.

Through all of this nonsense invoked in the name of security, at no point did anyone ask to see my son’s identification. He could’ve been Bruno the Baby-faced Terrorist but they didn’t care. They just wanted their fee, which I finally had them deduct from my debit card (money earmarked for rent). Next stop, screening, where I flashed the parent-pass I had been handed by the ticketing agent. The screener rolled his eyes—this was not the right pass. I protested— it was the one they issued me. He waived me through without further questioning.

Back home, I researched the allegation that this fee was in some manner federally mandated as was suggested. FAA Transportation Industry Analyst Peggy Fong explained: "The Department of Transportation does not regulate the unaccompanied minor (UM) programs of the carriers." I called JetBlue and Southwest and learned they charge no fee for an unaccompanied minor, even ones attended by a company employee. Both companies allow children over eleven to fly without an attendant.

I arrived an hour before Henry’s return flight, pleased to clear security with my twelve-inch, stake-like knitting needles as I was admitted to the gate area to await his arrival. Unlike other passengers who pay extra (first class), my child was forced to deplane last, amidst a batch of kids trailed at a distance by a distracted flight attendant who did nothing to herd them back together when they scattered.

Another American employee, supposedly there to intercept, sign paperwork, and hand the kids off safely, was preoccupied directing other adult passengers to their connecting flights. Though I’d clearly volunteered myself as a guardian picking up a minor, she never asked for my identification. Nor did she ask for the paperwork tucked into the ridiculous, huge purple vinyl envelope Henry was forced to wear around his neck (proclaiming to any passing pedophile or terrorist, "Look, I am an unaccompanied child! I am vulnerable! Grab me!!") This was the very paperwork – requiring an official signature— that I had been forced to pay for, that supposedly guaranteed my child some extra safety.

As we waited (and waited) for the attendant to follow protocol, Henry produced a document from the vinyl pocket stating: "Children twelve to seventeen years old are considered young adults and are NOT required to use the UNMR service."

Disgusted, I said "Let’s walk away," curious to see if one of the designated child supervisors might try to stop us. After all, I was repeatedly informed that paying the fee guaranteed close supervision of my child.

No one batted an eye.
About the author:
Spike Gillespie is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, the dotnovel thebelljar.net, and a collection of essays entitled, Surrender (but don't give yourself away): Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks. Gillespie is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and her work has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Playboy and Elle, and online at Salon, Nerve, Oxygen, Underwire and AustinMama. She is a reformed circus poodle, a retired stripper (Crazy Lady, 1978-81) and mother to three spawn-of-satan mutts and one freakin' hilarious and very tall boy ("But remember, son, I'll always be wider than you...").  She is currently working on a novel about how utterly fucked up love can be (How novel indeed...).