When I was 14 and a half, six years ago, I went on my first plane trip without my parents. Delta has a program that allows children from ages eight to 14 to fly on their own, without an adult accompanying them. Parents can choose whether or not they want their 15- to 17-year-olds to be placed under the care of the Delta employees when they fly alone. My mother was protective and sheltering of her youngest daughter, and she wanted to make sure that I was safe every moment I was away from her.
I was no stranger to flights at the time. My siblings, all far older than I, are spread across the western United States, and my parents’ families live in Michigan. We usually flew at least once a year. So I was reasonably comfortable with airports and planes. Plus, I’ve been blessed (and I mean that literally, given the stories I’ve heard from others of hours-long delays and flight cancellations, not to mention harrowing in-flight tales of storms and strangers) with good flying experiences all my life.
I was bound for Spokane, Washington, to visit my sister, who was going to college there, for my spring break. I had a layover in Salt Lake City—all of the flights out of my small hometown of Elko, Nevada, connected through there. I was as familiar with the Salt Lake City airport as I would have been had I actually lived there even then, so I felt all right about spending a little while there.
My mom walked with me onto the small 34-seater that I was going to take out of Elko. My ticket was bordered with black lines, telling anyone who saw it that I was a special passenger. I also had a sticker on my shirt that proclaimed me to be an “Unaccompanied Minor” with a design around the letters that looked vaguely like the American flag. The only reason I can give for this oddly patriotic sticker is that Delta’s colors are blue and red.
My first flight wasn’t bad. Those small planes are incredibly noisy, and the entire cabin whirred with the roar of the engine. The loud environment didn’t work well for listening to music or talking, so I spent most of the 45-minute flight flipping through SkyMall and pondering whether or not I needed a helmet that would protect my head in temperatures of excess of 400 degrees Fahrenheit (I fail to see the logic of this—it’s all well and good that my head would be safe, but does that really matter when the rest of my body is burnt to a crisp?).
Once we landed and reached the gate, I had to wait for all of the other passengers to get off before the flight attendant would escort me to the gate desk. Unaccompanied minors are never alone or unsupervised: I had a Delta employee with me every step of the way. And the irony of that has just now hit me. I was “unaccompanied,” and yet someone took me wherever I needed to go.