My child’s travel on Southwest Airlines as an unaccompanied “unaccompanied minor”

Last night I drove to Nashville to pick up J, after her week-long visit to California. She made the trip at the invitation of my Aunt Judy, my father’s only sibling, with whom I only recently reconnected. There had been some estrangement between my immediate family and my father’s side of the family – all of whom live in California – for the past 10-12 years. It was related to my father’s decision to divorce my mother. The distance meant that my children have grown up completely unfamiliar with their California kin, which made me sad. But we all came back together as a family in the months late last summer just before my father died, as we all tried to figure out how to help him, and during this process, we all realized we had missed too much time with one another. Forgiveness and forgetting were offered from both sides, and now all is well. These days, my Aunt Judy and my mother even chat fairly regularly. Who woulda thunk it? It gives me hope for all kinds of possibilities in relationships and life. It’s wonderful. I only wish it hadn’t taken my father’s rapidly deteriorating mental status last year, followed by his sudden death, to make this happen.

Anyway, a few months ago, my Aunt Judy invited my daughter J to come spend a week in Southern California this summer. J was thrilled at the idea, and I just love this about her; she doesn’t know these people at all, and has no idea what such a visit would entail, but at only 13 years old, she’s adventuresome enough to say heck yeah I want to go to the other side of the country for a week all by myself!

My aunt bought J’s plane ticket, and sent me the details. I was a little nervous about my 13 year old girl flying cross-country alone, since her flight both directions involved a layover of two hours with a plane change – one in Denver and one in Phoenix. But I figured I’d just hook her up with the airline’s “unaccompanied minor” program, and that some airline person would literally walk her through the plane changes. Because I assumed we could do this, I put off checking into it until the day before her flight.

Well, as it turns out, Southwest doesn’t offer this in loco parentis hand-holding service (for which they charge $25 per flight, by the way) for kids over age 11, and they don’t offer it on any flights with layovers or plane changes. The first part of this policy I can understand, but the second part makes ZERO sense to me. I mean, those are the situations where kids actually NEED an airline employee to help them; if it’s a direct flight, it’s not as big a deal for a child to fly alone.

But anyway, it was what it was. J is 13, not younger than 11, and her flights involved changing planes. No unaccompanied minor status was forthcoming. So I explained to J that she would have to handle this all by herself, and she said fine, no problem. J is lucky enough to have done a lot of traveling by plane already (often because her grandparents take her wonderful places, like France), so she didn’t seem too intimidated by getting herself to California without any assistance. I, however, was a little freaked out last Saturday as I watched my little girl confidently navigate her way through airport security, solo, and then turn and wave goodbye to me as she headed away through a crowd of people in the terminal to find her flight and take off.

She texted me when she found her gate, and then again when she located her gate in Denver for the flight change, and then she let me know when she touched down in California. And unlike in days of pre-9-11 yore, no adult was able to be there to greet her as she disembarked from the plane. They had to meet up with her at baggage check, so she had to find that part of the airport by herself, too, and then she had to locate and introduce herself to these relatives she didn’t know. She handled all of it with total aplomb, both coming and going. She is social competence personified. She was born with this amazing emotional intelligence that serves her really well.

Once she arrived in California, my aunt and cousins showed her an AWESOME time. One of my aunt’s granddaughters, M is just a few months older than J. These two second cousins who had never met immediately bonded and ended up spending every minute together for the whole trip. They went to Malibu, rode 4-wheelers on my aunt’s ranch, went to Hollywood, hit the mall several times, and jumped on the trampoline. J also got to go trail riding with Aunt Judy, who is a very accomplished endurance trail competitor. J had an awesome time. I was thrilled that she got to spend a little time with her great-grandmother, my father’s mother, for whom J is named. My great grandmother is in frail health and lives with my Aunt Judy, but J said she seemed really happy to have one of her Tennessee great-grandchildren visiting.

I had told J to be sure to save at least $25 of her spending money for her return trip so she would have funds for food, etc during her full day of air travel. She did, but then when she got to the airport, Southwest charged her $25 to check her small suitcase, which they had checked thru for free on her trip out there. J didn’t want to trouble her Aunt Judy by telling her that this was her last $25, so she paid the airline, and then spent the next 8 hours of cross country travel with NO money for food or drinks. All she ate all day were the free pretzels she got on the plane, plus some water. When she and I texted back and forth during her layover and flight change in Phoenix, I asked her if she had eaten, and she said “yes,” because technically she had (pretzels), but she didn’t tell me the truth – that she had no money or food – until she landed in Nashville because she didn’t want me to worry about her. I would have worried, a lot, so that was sweet of her. Needless to say, she was ravenous when she got to Nashville, so I immediately got her fed before we headed back to east Tennessee.

Oh, and on her flight from Phoenix to Nashville yesterday, J chatted with the woman next to her, and the woman began asking questions about J and her siblings. J, trying to be polite, answered all the questions, but she realized after a bit that the woman thought that J was some poor little urchin with cruel, uninvolved, divorced parents (J said the woman almost whispered the word “divorce” when she asked about her parents) who had callously and casually shipped her off to California with no adult accompaniment. J said the woman seemed to feel very sorry for J’s sad, sad circumstances. I told J she should have explained to the woman that her (J’s) parents would still be married, “except my mom wouldn’t stop with all the Satanic rituals, and after a while my father had just had enough of the headless chickens and skulls full of blood around the house.” I told her that this line probably would have ended the woman’s nosy and condescending inquiry. J says she’ll try it next time some stranger expresses misplaced pity over her terrible and pathetic broken family situation. I suspect she really will, too 😉 I hope so.

So that was J’s California adventure. She’s already spent a week in NYC this summer with her church youth group, so she’s had a pretty amazing vacation so far. The next two months are unlikely to measure up. But she and her new best friend/cousin M are already making plans for M to come here next, and J can’t wait to visit SoCal again.

Here are a few photos of J and her cousin M from the trip.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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