I took my son’s first passport, slid it into a plastic pouch and slung it around his neck. We were at the airport check-in and I felt like the worst mother in the world. What I really wanted to do was take a marker and write my name and phone number on his forehead.
In a few minutes, I would watch my 10-year-old walk off. This day, the one I dreaded for so many years, had arrived and I was determined not to cry.
I am the mom of an unaccompanied minor – a kid with more stamps in his passport than me. Apparently, I am not the exception; Air Canada’s website says, “more than 10,000 young travellers fly unaccompanied every year.” So who are all these kids travelling solo?
In my case, it came as a result of my son’s father relocating to the Midwestern U.S. soon after our separation. Long-distance relocation entailed longer visits, one in the summer and another at Christmas but I balked at the notion of putting my son alone on a plane.
Anthony was only four at the time, clearly too young to travel alone. I researched airline policies regarding UMs (airline lingo for unaccompanied minors), and I discovered children under five are not allowed to travel alone. In fact, age is only one consideration. Also at play is whether the flight is direct or connecting, and, if it’s a connecting flight, whether it’s on the same airline. A fee of $100 each way pays for an airline employee to escort the child from check-in until the final destination.
In the beginning, his father would pick him up and drop him off in the same way he had for his weekend visits before he moved away. The only difference was they would take two planes and return five weeks later in the summer and a week later at Christmas. By the time he was eight, Anthony had accumulated enough miles for a free trip and qualified as a frequent flyer. He also met the airline’s age requirement for UMs on connecting flights. His father thought he was ready to fly alone. Guess who disagreed?
The questions consumed me as I tried to imagine his first flight alone. This flight involved a stopover and a change of aircraft. An onslaught of ‘what-ifs’ poured into my head. What if he got traumatized by the experience? What if a stranger approached him? What if he got lost? If airlines could lose luggage, could they lose track of a child? A veteran reservation agent I know shared a slew of UM mishaps that had occurred, mostly on connecting flights. Like the time a little boy was escorted to the wrong gate and boarded a flight to the wrong destination. The agent explained this happened at a time when boarding passes were not scanned before boarding, as they are now. More recently however, a girl left the plane with a seatmate who had offered to direct her to the connecting gate. Although they eventually located her, the airline did temporarily lose track of the girl’s whereabouts.
When I called the airline to inquire about my son’s itinerary, the agent explained their policy and answered all of my questions. Finally, I asked the one question that was nagging at me: “Would you let your child travel alone?” She replied with split-second clarity, “Not me.” Her answer did nothing to appease my concerns. I realized it wasn’t about understanding their policy and knowing that UM travel was not uncommon.
It was simpler. This experienced agent wasn’t ready to let her own child join the ranks of unaccompanied minors, and neither was I.
The reality was that Anthony was familiar with security checks, customs line-ups and all the foofaraw that comes with travelling by plane. But when I broached the subject with him over breakfast one day, his face turned as white as the milk in his cereal bowl. He said, “Mom, there’s a plane in my heart and it goes back and forth, back and forth and I don’t know how to get off.” At that moment I knew he wasn’t ready to fly alone.
The UM issue resurfaced a year later. He had just turned 10. Was he ready to go alone now? Was I ready? I remembered the first time he wanted to go to the corner store with his friends. From the feeling in the pit of my stomach, he might as well have asked to take the car. This time when I asked about flying alone, he said he was ready. He also said he needed a new video game to keep him occupied during the flight. The problem now was making a connection in a strange city. What if the flight got delayed or cancelled? The airline explained they would get him on the next available flight or reroute him through another city if possible, which meant an additional flight. Worst case scenario: if the flight was cancelled and it wasn’t possible to send him back home, the agent would check into a hotel with him. That nausea-inducing possibility had me scrambling for alternatives. I weighed all the options and came back to my initial worries and anxieties, the ones that had been there from the start and would likely be there next year. To avoid any difficulties with the connection, his father agreed to meet him halfway.
That summer, his father drove five hours to meet him in Dallas, the connecting city, I filled out the necessary forms at the checkin and slung the passport pouch around his neck. I made sure he could recite our address and phone number backwards, forwards and in three languages. We ran into a roadblock when they told me I couldn’t accompany him to the boarding gate, as the agent on the phone had assured me. Security regulations made this impossible for flights to the U.S. Anthony panicked. All my efforts to remain calm vanished and I did what any parent on the verge of hysterics would do: I begged. I pleaded with the agent but then my son said, “Mom, I can do it. Let me go.” For just an instant, I caught a glimpse of the young man he would be one day. I hugged him and watched until he and the agent disappeared past the security gate.
I finally had found some peace with his flying solo until his father announced he was relocating to Dubai – two flights and 24 hours away. Anthony did not visit his father that Christmas. It was just too far to travel unaccompanied. Dubai was not only on another continent, it was a foreign country and I needed time to prepare him and myself for this trip. A year later, we were at the airport waiting to go to Dubai, via Atlanta. I was listening to a woman grill the agent about UM procedure and quizzing her daughter on what to answer if a stranger approached her. I felt an instant bond with this stranger, who was sending her nine-year-old daughter off for the first time. She asked if it was Anthony’s first trip to Atlanta. I said that it was, but that he would be connecting to Dubai. Then she wanted to know if I was on Valium. I wasn’t, but Anthony and I had a plan. He would call me from the lounge where only unaccompanied minors waited for connections (this type of lounge is available at some airports), and again before he boarded the next flight, and as many times in between if he needed. He had a bagful of electronic gadgets to keep himself occupied. I wish I could say I have found a way to separate the love in my heart from the fear in my head. I haven’t. I still worry about him when he travels. With time, I realized the pretravel anxiety was mixed in with the prospect of missing him. I also learned that growth happens, for parent and child, when we’re asked or forced to step out of our comfort zone.