This is a tale of two flights and one 12-year-old who wanted to fly on her own between New York City and Chicago a few weeks after her birthday.
Both flights were around $300. On American, she would have to fly as an unaccompanied minor and pay an additional $150 each way. Next year, too, and the year after that, until she turned 15.
On Southwest, however, she would not be required to use the unaccompanied minor service, saving money. She would not have to wear a lanyard with her boarding pass inside or a bracelet that would help track her location, or check in repeatedly with airline staff. So the 12-year-old, who happens to be my daughter, traveled on the normal fare instead of double that and finished her trip uneventfully over winter vacation.
Airline fee outrage is a consumer trope, but it is rare that a single fee can double your cost and rarer still when the rules seem to reflect a fundamental disagreement about child development and risk.
Lieber called Let Grow for comment, because we think about development and risk a lot. Like, all the time:
Southwest’s lower age requirement is reasonable, said Lenore Skenazy, the author of “Free-Range Kids” and president of Let Grow, which helps adults encourage children to do more everyday things on their own, sooner. “I think everyone who thinks about this knows that 12-year-olds can walk to and from security to the boarding gate,” she said. She has also spent years trying to talk parents out of disproportional concern about crimes committed against children, which have generally fallen in recent decades.
"But what if something bad happens?" Ah, the words Americans have been taught to say as often as, "Please," and "God, my phone is so slow!"
For all of Ms. Skenazy’s professional bravado, she gets that diversions are a part of life. Maybe even a good part, the part where the kids wander around the terminal and eat caramel corn for dinner instead of the emergency sandwich in their bag and then band together with strangers to make the best of a bad situation.
“When I ask people about their best childhood memories, it’s often about when something went wrong,” she said. “When you’re thrown off your game and you handle it, it’s the wind beneath your wings for evermore.”
I stand by (standby!) those words. Airlines, quit treating teens like toddlers, and their parents like ATMs. - L.