July 1, 2012 by Jean Layton
Having a baby was the first blessing, especially after losing my first husband to cancer.
Ed and I wanted two children when we married. Blessed by both at once when we had our twin girls, we knew that there would be some stresses, some challenges.
We were up for all of those, managing to balance medical school with infants. Including the joys of discovering my first gray hairs before they turned one.
What we weren’t quite prepared for, a very wise Momma friend explained, was the sensation of my heart walking around outside my body.
I’d heard the talk about heartstrings, always with a bit of confusion.
Heartstrings? You mean the sensations of love, tenderness and peace when your lover is within reach, the softness of the time?
No, that wasn’t what they meant at all, but couldn’t explain more.
Now, I understand.
Heartstrings are those lines of energy that tell you immediately when something has affected your loved one. That awareness of life’s little moments before you are told about them in words.
The awareness that keeps a parent near a phone when their children are traveling, alone, across the country.
That is where I was on June 27th, 2012.
Waiting to hear that my heart was still beating on Cape Cod after flying with my daughters on their first solo airline flight, winging their way to a vacation with dear friends.
They had earned this flight, working afternoons and weekends babysitting, gardening, folding clothes, Mother helpering and cleaning houses, to make enough money to go.
It had taken quite a bit of eloquent arguments from them, convincing Ed and I to realize that we had done our job as parents well. We have raised a pair of debators.
We had given them the foundations for this adventure, the roots for them to grow. They had the tools to reach out to us, if needed. It was time to sprout their wings.
Fiona and Katie are two of those kids people remark about-respectful, as easy to talk to as an adult, confident, poised, mature.
But they are 13 and a half. They are still children.
Ed and I made the decision to get them a bit of assistance while they used their wings for the first time.
We hired United Airlines to watch over them as they traveled as unaccompanied minors, to guide them from one flight to another in Newark Airport. To be their traveling guide.
But United failed to do so, AT ALL.
When they arrived in Newark on their one hour delayed flight, no one helped them get from their arrival gate to the departure gate clear across the terminal in time for their departure 40 minutes later for Boston.
No one on the arriving flight took them under their wing to shepherd them to the right gate.
No flight attendant remembered that they had two unaccompanied minors on the flight.
No, they had to call me, clear across the country for guidance. Thank goodness, we had insisted that each have a cell phone with them. There is just no need not to these days. I saw a pay-as-you-go phone for $8 at Fred Meyer’s the other day.
They called home, letting me know that they had waited at the end of the flight to be met by an official. Had waited to go to the next gate.
My heartstrings vibrated. And the Momma tiger woke up. You know the one, that maternal being that would do anything to keep its child safe. That one with the ferocious love and quickly irritated claws.
I called United to ask about the lack of a guide for my girls, and roared just a bit.
But I couldn’t get United to believe there was a problem on the phone.
They weren’t concerned that there were unacommpanied minors without guidance between flights.
They weren’t able to send someone to the gate for them to be guided. Oh, and if I wanted the $99 fee to be refunded, the girls would have to speak to a gate agent for a voucher before they left the airport.
My 13 year olds were supposed to approach a gate agent, and negotiate for a refund simply because United dropped the ball on the handoff? I wasn’t concerned about the money right then, the the lack of assistance was my focus.
My momma tiger instincts knew I had to provide the guidance my girls needed, so I signed off with the customer non service and called the girls back.
Luckily, I’ve flown enough through Newark that I could talk them through the change of planes. Got them to check the departure board for their flight number to Boston.
Reminded them that I had downloaded Kayak to their IPod Touchs. Let them know to sign on to the free Wifi at Newark to get the gate number a second way, to check to see if their departure was also delayed.
Reminded them that I had routed them through Newark because they have an uncle and an aunt within an hour’s drive of the airport in case the flight is cancelled.
Reminded them of their checklist at the connection:
go fill up their water bottles,
use the bathroom,
to get something for dinner if they needed it.
I’m grateful to Newark Airport that there was free wifi. Grateful to my nephews for passing down the Ipod Touchs when they moved upstream to Iphones.
Grateful that my girls don’t panic when the plans change. I got them on the plane from 2400 miles away.
And waited to hear that they had arrived safely in Boston.
United Airlines didn’t respond when I filled in the feedback form on their website. I still haven’t yet gotten a response there.
It is July 3rd and I STILL haven’t gotten any response from the United website.They did get a bit defensive when I called my credit card to contest the charge. Then, Janet in customer service tried to imply that my daughters had done something wrong by leaving the plane without the flight attendants. That they should have known to be the last persons off of the flight.
Believe me, if United had told me the system, then Katie and Fiona would have waited patiently in their seats.
But nowhere in this experience was any guidance provided.
When I gathered their boarding passes in the distinctive red and white edged envelope in Seattle, the agent never said to make them wait to get off. When they entered the plane at the gate, no one said anything about the connection.
Heck, I had to beg an agent at another gate to tell me whether the outbound plane had actually left the ground, wasn’t still waiting in line to take off., even though that is one of the directives given when checking in. The gate attendees on my girls flight left the gate area just as soon as the doors were closed.
I didn’t want to leave SeaTac without knowing they were in the air, just in case their plane had to return to the terminal. It’s a 2 hour drive home, but the only way to find out was to interrupt a busy gate agent.
I realized from that single phone call that United doesn’t have good control on some of their most precious cargo.
I could be angry, ranting and telling the world that I would never fly United again.
Or I can be part of the solution and provide them with the checklist I wish I had been handed when I put those wristbands on the girls in Seattle. I might have to fly United again, just not too willingly.
I’m a really big fan of checklists, a trait I’ve managed to pass on to our girls.
A simple one, for the child, to be printed on the outside of that red and white envelope.
Tell the flight attendant that you are traveling solo.
Wait till the plane empties to get off, making sure to tell the flight attendant
Ask if you have time to get food, go to the bathroom and get water
Move with the travel guide to your connecting gate.
Enjoy your flight.
Heck, this could even be done in pictures for a young child.
Can you imagine if my girls were younger? How would they have gotten along safely then?
A bit longer one for the adult who is bringing them to the gate for departure.
Does your child:
know your cell phone, home phone, work phone.
understand that they need to keep track of their luggage, and backpack?
understand that they need to wait for a guide between the gates?
have a meal with them or need to purchase one onboard? (for all us gluten-free folk, just pack a meal, rarely is the food onboard gluten-free)
have money with them to pay for it?
have a list of their flight numbers and destinations
know anyone in the area of the connecting flight, just in case there is a flight cancellation? Do they have those phone numbers?
remind them to be aware of their surroundings, listen for flight announcements
Have a list of phone numbers for the person meeting them at their destination?
Enjoy their flight.
Meet the pick up person at the conclusion.
Simple, clear and so needed.
They got to Boston fine, and were met by our friends. Now they are enjoying a Cape Cod vacation, eating lobster omelettes for breakfast, enjoying a drive in movie.
My heartstrings are peaceful for now, after all they don’t fly back till July 5th.
Maybe United will get its act together in time. Or maybe not.
I still haven’t had any formal response from United Airlines, no apology.
My credit card has been credited with the unaccompanied minors fee.
The girls are home, safe and sound with wonderful stories of the Cape.
I've never been given an apology or explanation. I've also not flown United since.