Teenagers on a Plane

15-year-old Jacksonville, Florida resident Bridget Brown was bored. That happens. It’s August and she’s 15.

She had been saving money for a car, but then a better idea came to her.Airport Crop Why not make a daytrip to Dollywood with her little brother and a friend, aged 13 and 11, respectively. I think we’d all agree that she’d be better off with the car. And it would have been a good idea to discuss it with her parents first. She didn’t.

Bridget grabbed her cash, called a cab, and headed for the airport with boys in tow. Once there she bought three round-trip tickets to Nashville. They went through security without ID, which is allowed if you are under 18.

Once in Nashville, the trio was confronted with the minor detail that Dollywood was still 200 miles away. (Flying to Knoxville would have been a better choice.) Without an obvious way to get there, they panicked and called home. Not that clever, but hey, she’s 15.

Up to this point the story strikes me as an amusing tale of a fairly harmless teenage escapade. The sort of story that will be told over and over again by family members for decades. I don’t have a 15-year-old myself, but we plan to in three years and I like to imagine that if my kid called from an airport under these circumstances I’d just tell them to come home. Then I’d tell the wife this came from her side of the family.

Once again, I am out of step with normal America, or maybe just just out of date. The parents of these travelers may indeed someday tell the story as an amusing anecdote, but for now they are outraged and confused. And apparently, this is the reaction I am supposed to have too. The story at ABC News, linked to above, is entitled “Kids Fly Solo to Nashville, Parents Want Answers” and subtitled “Trio of Kids, Oldest 15, Fly to Nashville Alone, Never Stopped By Airline or TSA.”

I gather the idea is that the adults at the airport should have turned away these children from their dangerous trip. Because, you know, anything could have happened.

I am not completely alone in my head scratching. The airline involved responded to the controversy thusly:

Southwest Airlines unaccompanied minor policy covers children from ages five through 11 traveling alone. In this case, the 11-year-old Customer was accompanied by two older companions. A 12-year-old passenger can travel alone without a parent. Many airlines have similar policies on minors traveling alone.

In other words, nothing went wrong here, this is the way the system works, it is the way it has always worked, and what is wrong with you people anyway?

For me, the only hard to believe part of the story is that they paid cash. I was under the impression that if you showed up at a ticket counter without ID and tried to pay cash for a ticket you would be on your way to Guantanamo within the hour. Do airport ticket counters even take cash? More to the point, don’t most 15-year-old girls have credit cards? Is it just possible that Bridget actually used plastic but that her parents, not wishing to suffer blame for giving such a dangerous item to a mere child, fudged that part of the tale?

And I am glad that the fact that anybody can get through TSA security without ID if they can plausibly claim to be under 18 is now in print. I didn’t want to be the first one to point out this particular flaw in airport security theater. Thankfully, terrorists are always middle-aged.

But the reason I am bringing this up at all is that it is yet another example of what I have today decided to call the imbecilization of America. We increasingly treat adults as if they were kids, so naturally we now must treat everybody under 18 as if they were toddlers.

When I was 15, way back in the 20th Century, I travelled alone between cities routinely. Subway in Brooklyn to Penn Station, Amtrak to Boston’s South Station, T to uncle’s house in Cambridge. Sure, trains are not airplanes, but I am certain that if I had had the money I could have flown just as easily. And the New York City Subway in those days was way more dangerous than anything Bridget and the boys faced on their jaunt. Trust me.

The time was when a girl Bridget’s age could have gotten married in some states. (Strictly speaking, she still can, but it requires parental consent and/or court permission.) 16-year-olds are still allowed to drive cars, in most parts of the country, at least for now. So in a few months Bridget will be able to drive to Nashville, something that is even more dangerous than the Subway was.

I think it inevitable that in the near future airport rules will be changed to prevent this sort of horror occurring again. Perhaps those under 18 will not be permitted to fly without parental permission. And although a driver’s license at 16 is an American institution, it is one under attack. Advocates for raising the age to 18 point out that traffic fatalities for young people are lower in states where they are not allowed to drive. That is true, but hardly insightful. I am sure that raising the driving age to 30 would reduce fatalities amongst people in their 20s.

I suppose that if I tried I could come up with an argument I thought was compelling in the form of “we allow 15-year-olds to do X and Y, so why not allow them to fly to Nashville?” But I am quite sure that the response I would get would be that they shouldn’t be able to do X and Y either. Similarly, an argument that 21-year-olds can do just about anything but run for president so why can’t somebody just six years younger do something as mild as travel on their own won’t cut it. Too many Americans are not so sure we should be letting 21-year-olds do all that dangerous stuff.

One of my philosophies of parenting is that kids may or may not act less responsibly than you expect them to, but they will under no circumstances act more with more responsibility than is expected of them. Treat them like they can’t be trusted to do anything, and you get what you deserve. Same goes for adults. Treat them like you don’t expect them to understand credit card agreements, or what co-signing a loan means, and we get what we deserve.


  • By Dan, August 20, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    You should change the name of this blog to The Disgruntled Conservative, even though that is redundant.

  • By Chuck, August 20, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    It’s amusing when someone who would be insulted by being called a conservative, assumes calling a conservative a conservative would offend him.

  • By jim, August 20, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    “the imbecilization of America.”

    That really deserves to be capitalized.

    Haven’t kids always routinely flown unattended. I am not clear what the problem is. Seems more like the parents are having an “our kids did something stupid, lets blame someone else for letting it happen” moment.
    I don’t know what stopping teenagers from flying would accomplish. Now if someone could stop crying babies and unruly toddlers that kick the back of my seat nonstop from flying then I’d vote for that.

    Dan: I really don’t have any idea what this article has to do with being conservative or liberal.

  • By sha, August 20, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    Being conservative means that i believe parents should not blaming the airlines for this? Man i need to call Glenn Beck up and sign up for all his classes right now.

    Kids did something stupid on their own accord without outside help. Parents know that. Parents blame someone else than kids for the kids doing this. How does thinking this is horrible irrational thought make them a conservative?

    Accountability is hard.

  • By Kimberly, August 21, 2010 @ 2:43 am

    This story covers so much of what is crazy about the way kids are treated now. It’s not that horrible an event and certainly the airline was not at fault in the slightest for following their well-established guidelines. I’m more impressed that a 15 year old girl had enough cash to buy three round trip, last minute, tickets. And was willing to spend it on something other than an iPod and clothes.

    Also, is anyone blaming the parents for not watching/keeping track of their own kids better? Because it is totally ridiculous that you would blame a corporation for not watching your kids, when apparently you aren’t bothering to do so either.

  • By mc, August 21, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    I think they were mixing up Dollywood with Opryland. They should have gone ahead and gone to Opryland.

  • By mightymouselives, August 21, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    Pretty cool kid.

  • By Craig, August 21, 2010 @ 5:07 pm


    Opryland is just a hotel and a shopping mall now, so they might have been disappointed. I worked some of the rides in the amusement park back when such a thing existed, and it wasn’t a lot to get worked up about even then. They should have flown to Atlanta and taken the train out to the local Six Flags instead.

    Obviously, I side with the airline here. My view is that a fifteen year old should be able to get an abortion without telling her parents, so I see air travel as pretty weak tea.

  • By Brendan, August 22, 2010 @ 5:31 am

    In Europe I doubt they would be let on the plane. Ryanair(the southwest equivalent) has a no passport no fly rule.

    I would say a 16 year old is old enough to fly alone, however if we go back to the middle ages
    -Teenage pregnancy was positively encouraged
    -Children had to work
    -Children as young as 7 could face the death penalty

  • By gautch, August 22, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    As for taking cash at the ticket counter, when I worked at SWA we took cash. No questions asked. Why would cash raise suspicion?

  • By Steve, August 22, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    I was married 2 months before my 21st birthday. Flew to Niagra Falls on our honeymoon and was told I could not rent a car since I was under 21. So I rented a 20′ truck from Ryder. Even drove it into Canada! The good old days in 1981.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, August 22, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    The more I think about some details in the story, the more I am convinced that the version put out by the parents and reported by the media is not the whole truth. In the USA Today article Bridget refers to checking bags, which suggests that this was not a daytrip. Usually we call teenage girls who leave home with packed bags without telling their parents runaways.

    Brendan: According to a 20-year-old German friend of mine, European teenagers fly just as easily as American ones. She flew from Germany to Ireland alone when 15 without any difficulty. Of course, Europeans aren’t squeamish about national identity cards, so they all have ID from an early age.

  • By Adam, August 22, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    I’m kind of suprised on the rules about flying without ID and paying cash. It does seem a little weird, I guess when its 11 year olds…I still think they should be showing birth certificates or something, but then almost all the flying I do is international and my baby brother who is 2 has his own passport.

    I suppose the story could still have occured if the kids involved all had their birth certificates or some other id on them unbeknownst to their parents, and yes, airport ticket counters still take cash. Although I understand flying one way and paying cash would get you some pretty hefty security checks?

  • By Mitch, August 22, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    When I was 11, I flew unaccompanied from JFK to Vienna, Austria, with a layover in Frankfurt. I had my 10 year old sister and 8 year old brother with me.

    There was a flight delay, and we wound up having to sit in Frankfurt for several hours. On my own, I managed to rebook our flight to Vienna and secure a hot meal for my siblings, compliments of the airline. This was 20 years ago, so yeah, we weren’t panicing at the mere mention of anyone from the middle east. But for an 11 year old on only his second international flight, I think I did alright.

    What the flip is wrong with adults these days that they can’t give a bit of responsibility to their kids? Or not panic and blame everyone else when their kids do something stupid? Seriously, get a grip.

    Kids (and people) generally rise, or sink, to the level of expectation. If you expect your kids to be helpless people, then they will probably be helpless people. If you expect your kids to be resourceful and resilient people, then they will probably be resourceful and resilient people.

    And I’m a parent now, so please don’t tell me that I can’t possibly understand.

  • By Zoe, August 23, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    I also fail to see why this would be a problem. If a teenager is smart enough to make the arrangements, she is mature enough to be flying without parents. When I was a teenager (25 years ago), I regularly booked my own flight to visit my mother (parents were divorced) and never had any problem with handling the logistics myself. Of course, when I was 6, my 5 year old sister and I were put on a plan to fly across the country to visit her for Christmas, so we have been flying since we were quite young.

  • By jim, August 23, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    I mentioned this one to my wife. Her thought was that selling airline tickets to children really doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose. Why should a child need to purchase airline tickets at all? I don’t really see any real reason that a child should be buying airline tickets.
    Allowing children to buy airline tickets facilitates runaways or other delinquent behavior.

    Of course the actual problem in this case is a bored teenager did something they weren’t supposed to. I wouldn’t blame the airline or the TSA for it. Our nations laws and rules should not be designed around the stupid things bored teenagers might do.

  • By Art, August 24, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    I would agree that America as a nation is taking some strange viewpoints, but mightn’t it be more productive to realize that the most offending cases of stupidity come directly from News Media? Shocking headlines sell, and being able to use Children and the TSA in a single headline is pure news gold.

  • By Boston Steve, August 25, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    I agree with Art, this kind of story is all about selling “news”, just like the balloon boy or other “reality” stories. And its both the parents fault for raising irresponsible kids and the airlines for taking cash from them without a bell going off.

    Of course a 15 year old should be able to fly without an adult, and of course they should have to have an ID, why shouldn’t they require one? If a 15 year old can be “bored” enough to fly a plane couldn’t one be alienated, pissed off or crazy enough to bomb one?

    What this really shows is that after 9 years of work, enormous sums of money and effort, someone can still walk onto an airline here in the U.S., without an I.D.

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