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Once again, I am out of step with normal America, or maybe just just out of date.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.

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