With 40 percent of Americans predicted to be on the roads or in the air around the holidays, news stories ranging from the serious to the ridiculous are sure to abound. In her new book, "Tales" from the Tarmac, Claudia Helena Oxee, a longtime station manager and independent airline crew consultant, offers a glimpse into the strange and sometimes unbelievable happenings at the airport and beyond. This is the first of three excerpts for HuffPost.
WHEN CHILDREN TRAVEL alone between the ages of seven and 14, they are considered UMs (unaccompanied minors). Since they are the airline's responsibility, the ground and in-flight crews follow strict guidelines in handling these young passengers. During check-in at the departure terminal, a family member or guardian must fill out mandatory forms that contain pertinent information for the child's safety and security. These signed forms, along with their travel documents, are put in a plastic pouch issued by the agent and placed around the child's neck. When all is done, the child is handed over in the arrivals terminal to a family member who must sign for his release. In general, it is an amiable, secure modus operandi and children usually consider it a fun experience.
Upon one of the arrivals at JFK, where I was stationed at the time, an agent called my office to advise they had a 12-year-old UM, his luggage, and no parents to sign for him. I asked the agent to wait a half hour or so, assuming the parents encountered traffic since they were coming from Stanford, Connecticut. An hour later, still no parents. The agent brought him over to me, and in addition to my usual operational responsibilities, babysitting was added to the evening's to-do list. He was a little cutie, not at all stressed, and he took it in stride. After a few minutes of making small talk, I called the UM's home. An answering machine picked up. I left a message saying they needn't be frantic with worry because their son was secure in my office. The two of us kept looking at the door and we reassured one another that any minute the distraught parents would magically appear. An hour later, it was evident that this was not going to happen all that soon.
Since I had to be ramp side for our outbound flight, I told the UM not to move out of the office until I returned and that he was welcomed to answer my phone and take messages. After the departure, I was certain that by the time I returned back from the tarmac, June and Ward Cleaver and the Beave would be merrily on their way back to Connecticut. Not so! He was doodling on a piece of paper at my desk and when I walked in, he anxiously looked up at me and asked if his parents had arrived. I checked with the staff again and as expected, they hadn't, which meant another long night of surprises at JFK.
My fear was that the parents had gotten into a serious accident rendering them powerless to call. What other possible reasons were there? Only something tragic would have warranted such parental delinquency! Why hadn't any one called? With a heavy heart and mind, I started preparing to be the potential bearer of bad news for this lovable UM. It had been more than six hours with still no communication from the family. How much longer could I wait before implementing a course of action?
Just before calling Ops in Germany and beginning the unpleasant process, one last attempt was made to reach his parents. To my surprise, his mother nonchalantly answered the phone. It was such a relief yet my patience was being tested when I asked if she received all the messages I had left on her voicemail re: her distressed son's arrival. I shall never forget her answer: "Oh, was that today?" She did not ask to speak to her anguished child and asked if I could check him into a local hotel. Since her son was standing next to me, it was really an effort to keep my composure while discreetly cursing her and the preposterous request. She begrudgingly relented and said, "Well, I guess you leave us no choice but to drive all the way to the airport now."
At 12:45 a.m., dumb and dumber finally showed up. As we approached the mother, she barely embraced her son -- considering his ordeal and the fact that he was away from home for two months. Unfortunately, I had to be civil and could not display my contempt in front of this innocent child, so instead I gave him a big hug, thanked him for his wonderful company, gave him my home number and told him to call me any time for any reason should he have parental issues in the future! I had his mother sign the UM release and an Incident Report advising her that both will remain on file indefinitely.
A few days later, I mailed a little package to him consisting of a small model of the aircraft type that he flew in, a tee shirt, key chain and pen, along with a "thank you" note for helping me and making that day a very special one.