The Perils of Air Travel for a Parent Back Home

August 22, 1994|By TIM BAKER

This is Baker Mission Control. It's a command center in my head. I sit here and track my children whenever they travel.

The call comes at noon. Daddy? It's Emily, reporting in. The van's delivered her safely to the airport in Bangor, Me. We haven't heard from her since dropping her off at Outward Bound three weeks ago.

How was your sailing course? Great. Call us again when you get to Newark. Okay. Remember, you haven't got much time to catch your connecting flight to Baltimore. Okay.

But the next call comes from Bangor, too. Her plane is delayed an hour. Because of bad weather in Newark. Call us back if it's delayed again. Okay.

I turn on the weather channel and start dialing the airline's 800 number. Busy. The TV's electronic weather map is lit up. Severe thunderstorms all over northern New Jersey. The airline is still busy. Thank God for push button phones. Busy. Busy. It finally rings. Recorded message. I have to wait.

Eventually, some impersonal airline clerk tells me all flights in and out of Newark have been held up. So Emily probably won't miss her connection to Baltimore. I switch her reservation to a later flight anyway.

More calls from Bangor. Her plane's delayed again and again. I keep dialing the airline. Busy. Thank God for re-dial buttons. Busy. Busy. Ring. Ring. Wait. Wait. This business of giving our children a little independence can be wearing. Emotionally wearing.

By five o'clock, Emily's tired and hungry. I'm frantic. There aren't any other flights out of Bangor today. The airline says that if hers is cancelled, they won't put her up for the night. The weather's not their fault.

But she's only 15. And she has only $10 left.

Mission Control's sense of control is slipping away. What did parents do when they knew they didn't have any control? None at all?

In 1863, my great-great-grandfather said goodbye to his family in Holland and sailed across the ocean to America. He went steerage in a wooden ship. He was only 18. What did his father do about storms on the Atlantic?

I dial the airline's 800 number again. Busy. With a rotary phone, I'd have a broken wrist by now. Busy. Busy. Wait. Wait. I'm sick of the recorded message.

A different airline clerk says Emily's plane took off for Newark at six. But her connecting flight to Baltimore has been cancelled, and he refuses to tell me what flight on now. Federal regulations prohibit him from disclosing this information to anyone other than the passenger.

Mission Control loses control.

I'm her father, you idiot!

I'm not sure all this telecommunications technology helps. Real time can create real anxiety. I'd rather learn about it later. In a letter. When it's over.

Instead I'm sitting in my house in Maryland arguing over the telephone with an airline reservations clerk who's sitting at a computer terminal in Denver trying to figure out how to get my daughter back from Maine to Baltimore through an airport in New Jersey. We both have this high-tech illusion of control. But neither of us can do anything about the thunderstorms. Emily calls me as soon as she lands in Newark. Her connecting flight's been cancelled. Everything's cancelled.

Daddy, what do I do?

Will the airline put you up? She doesn't know. A mob of stranded passengers surrounds the airline desk. The 800 number is useless. It's busy all the time now. Daddy, I'm hungry. She sounds scared.

Actually, I'm sure she'd do fine if she were on her own. She'd wait in line. If the airline wouldn't put her up, she'd spend the night in the airport. She'd be okay. After all, she's just spent three weeks sleeping on the deck of a sailboat. So one night sleeping on the floor of an airport wouldn't be too bad. She's got her day pack. It would be an experience. She could stand it.

I can't.

Command Decision. While Emily waits in a phone booth, where I can call her back, I start dialing the 800 numbers for hotel chains. Busy. Busy. Wait. Wait. I get through. Do you have any rooms at the Newark airport? Sorry, we're all full. Finally, I find a room. Thank God. Corporate rate. I don't care. It's my teen-age daughter. Oh, they're sorry, but they don't accept unaccompanied teen-agers.

You nitwit! That's the whole problem. She's unaccompanied. She's only 15. He talks to his supervisor. We work it out. They DTC take my credit card number. A hotel bus picks her up.

The last call of the long day comes in from her hotel room. She's safe. So now we can deal with the important issues. Can she watch the Pay-TV movie? Okay. And, yes, she can have a soft drink from the room's corporate-rate courtesy bar. But, no, she can't order room service. Who do you think you are? Eloise at The Plaza? We both laugh.

And we laugh about everything the next day, when her plane arrives at the Baltimore airport. She comes through the gate. Tanned and smiling. We all hug and kiss her. She tells us how she had french toast for breakfast at the hotel, and driving home, we hear her stories about the sailing course. There was this neat boy from Florida. Can she call him tonight? Sure.

Sure. She's back. Home. Safe. Whatever she wants. Sure.

Mission Control stands down. The phones are quiet. The monitors blank. The staff's been given a week off. A week to relax. A week and then Emily's older brother drives back to college.

Battle Stations! Full Alert! Code Red! When the first call comes in, I'll be ready.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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