Flying the Helicoptery Skies
(story by Mir, from Woulda Coulda Shoulda)
We all know that post-9/11 air travel is a completely different reality than what most of us grew up experiencing. (I say "most of us" because I recently met a woman my age who'd never been on an airplane. That kind of blew my mind. I'm talking about people who had experienced commercial air travel pre-9/11 as opposed to folks who have only had the dubious pleasure of the TSA-nanny-state experience we all get to "enjoy," now.)
I am one of those people who finds the new regulations… well, they're annoying, sure. It would be much nicer to just walk into the airport, locate the proper gate, and head on over, yes. But I prefer having to remove my shoes and put all my toiletries into a quart sized Ziploc bag to, say, having my plane blown up by crazy people, so the bottom line is that I'm not that bothered. In fact, I am almost always selected for either a full-body scan or a spot-check of my carry-on luggage, and—given that I am, I think, a fairly regular and unassuming-looking person—I once asked the TSA agent rifling through my things why I seem to so often be picked. As soon as I asked, I realized it was a silly question, and I didn't really expect an answer… but to my surprise, the agent kind of looked around, then leaned in and quietly said, "You look like the sort of person who probably won't complain." As a lifelong type-A personality, I decided to take that as a compliment.
All of this is to say that I find air travel a kind of necessary inconvenience; I don't really enjoy it, but neither do I feel like the endless bitching that people tend to do about how horrible it's become is necessarily warranted, either.
This is kind of sad, if I think about it. When I was a kid, we flew to visit my grandparents once a year, and I absolutely LOVED it. We usually dressed up a little for the trip. (Okay, I'm not that old, really, but remember when people dressed up to fly??) My mother would bring candy and games for my brother and me, and the stewardesses always fussed over us—we always got those plastic wing pins, and a new deck of playing cards, and sometimes we even got to go up to the cockpit to say hello to the pilot. And we got to drink soda, even if it was before lunch! It was all very exciting.
It's been years since I viewed air travel as anything other than a means to an end, but recently I was booking plane tickets for a family trip and came face to face with how different things really are, now. See, we're taking a vacation with extended family for a week (yay!), but when that's over, my teenager is going to fly to her dad's house for a visit (while the rest of us go home). She's flown there by herself only once before, but I figured this time it would all be even easier, because we're all headed to the airport, and our flights are close together—last time, I had to go fill out a bunch of forms and get a special pass just to get to go through Security with her. This time, I thought, would be a piece of cake.
Well. Last time, her father made the arrangements and bought her ticket. This time, I was shocked to discover that at age 14, she is still considered "too young" to fly alone without us ponying up a mandatory $100 Unaccompanied Minor Fee to the airline. Even if we were okay with her navigating on her own (we'll be with her until she gets on the plane, and her non-stop flight deposits her at an easily-navigated airport she's been to dozens of times before), she is not allowed to disembark without an airline employee walking her out. This is true even though logic dictates that after everyone in the airport's been scanned and felt up, the airport is probably safer than the hallways at her school. (And just to be clear: I have no problem with the airline offering this service as an option. Every kid is different, and some are probably fine to fly alone at 10 and some still wouldn't be ready at 16. I'd just like to see the parents have a little more say over that decision.)
The year I was 14, we couldn't make the family trip to my grandparents' as planned. I can't remember why; maybe it was a work conflict for my parents? Or my brother had something school-related at home he couldn't miss? I lobbied to make the trip on my own, and my parents agreed to send me. (I grew up in upstate New York; that Easter-time trip to Florida meant lazy days at the beach when it was still snowing at home.) Of course, back then, you didn't have to get through Security to get to the gates, so my parents simply walked me to the gate when I left, and my grandparents met me at the gate when I arrived. I don't remember the trip itself, really. I assume I drank my ginger ale and read a book and looked out the window, and never once thought to myself, "OH NOES THIS IS SO SCARY, I HOPE A STEWARDESS WILL PROTECT ME."
The bottom line, I guess, is that I understand the need for strong security at our airports. But at the same time, I feel like the national fear of DANGER and MAYHEM means that even our airports are insisting on helicopter parenting, to the tune of high schoolers being deemed somehow incapable of… sitting in a seat for a few hours without direct supervision. I'm not even talking about the extra money the airline is bilking us out of, I'm talking about the message it sends. How have we arrived at a place in our society where kids my daughter's age are seen as too young to travel alone, but at the same time are expected to know what they want to be when they grow up, and by the way they should also want to wear g-strings and make-up and go get spray tans? (Don't worry; my kid has some ideas about her future, but no interest in the rest of that.)
Growing up is hard enough already. Too bad this trip is giving my kid one more thing to be indignant about.
Do you think a 14-year-old is too young to fly alone? Are there more mixed messages for today's teens about age expectations than we faced years ago, or am I just being a curmudgeon?
(fly more with Mir here)