Every airport has a secret haven for kids
Ever since I was 4, my parents (divorced) had joint custody while living on opposite sides of the US. This meant that I flew back and forth between them a dozen times every year.
In official terms, I was an “unaccompanied minor”, because I was traveling alone.
(My child brain wondered why I was being called a miner ⛏🧒)
Between the ages of 4 and 14, I flew over 100 such flights, but I didn’t realize it was a somewhat unusual thing for a child to fly without their parents until I was an adult and realized: I never see kids doing what I was doing when I was little.
I don’t think it’s merely chance or lack of attention. I think it’s probably just rare for kids to fly solo. And if I hadn’t done it myself, I probably wouldn’t even realize that airports have a whole system for this.
Well, for everyone who never knew and never asked, here’s what it was like to fly as an unaccompanied minor.
After helping me check-in, my mother or father would hand me off to the care of a flight attendant.
Pre 9-11, that would happen in front of the gate, or sometimes inside the plane. Post 9-11 my parents wouldn’t be allowed into security, so a flight attendant would escort me through security and to the gate, then keep an eye on me while I waited to board.
I remember thinking flight attendants were always so friendly and attentive. As an adult I honestly still feel that way.
When I boarded, it was always in the very back or very front (of coach). From there the flight attendants mostly left me to myself. Sometimes I was sitting with another unaccompanied minor, which was always fun because I’d have a friend for the flight. But usually I was just next to an adult stranger.
This was all in the late ’90s’ to late ‘2000s, and I wonder if they still place unaccompanied kids next to strangers in 2021.
Best Layover Ever
After we landed, the flight attendant would have me wait until the entire plane emptied out, and then escorted me out of the plane and to the secret kid’s room.
I say secret because no matter what airport I was in, the entrance for this room was always very discreet. The door was totally plain and unremarkable, or tucked away around a corner.
But behind those boring entrances were the most exciting rooms of my childhood. These rooms were full of toys, video games, and a bunch of other kids to play with. The walls were covered in colorful characters, the furniture was all kid-sized.
It was like an all-you-can-eat buffet of my favorite things, and I had hours to play with as many new toys and video games as I wanted. It seemed like there were no adults to ruin the fun, although surely there was a supervisor who was so uninvolved that I don’t remember their presence.
Eventually the fun had to end though, as a flight attendant (usually not the same one who brought me there) came around calling my name to take me to my next flight.
Sometimes I even had 2 layovers. That meant 2 rounds in the kid room. Awesome.
I saw so many different versions of this room in various airports that I’m pretty sure every US airport has one; adults just don’t realize it.
Riding the cart
Sometimes we’d hitch a ride on one of the golf-cart type things that airport workers use. I felt very smug, getting the VIP treatment while the rest had to walk to their gate.
Sometimes I’d even get a goodie bag. The best ones had model planes in them, usually plastic but sometimes metal. They made nice souvenirs, but I was more interested in doing takeoffs and landings off the arm rest and tray tables (while making airplane noises of course).
Once my final flight arrived, I once again had to wait until the plane was empty, and then the flight attendant escorted me out.
Pre 9-11, my mother or father would be waiting right at the gate, but, well you already know how that is now.
These are decade old memories. Who knows how things have changed since then. But I bet that in every airport there are still secret rooms full of kids having fun, just out of sight of all the bored adults.