I took my 13-year-old son to the airport last night. He was flying as an “unaccompanied minor” to Los Angeles to meet up with his grandparents who have promised him two weeks of unmitigated American fun (roller coasters, beaches and all you can eat sushi – yum, I wish I was 13 again!)
The unaccompanied minor (or UM, as the El Al staff calls them) program is a mini-industry for the airlines. There must have been a dozen kids, ranging in age from six to fifteen, in the posse, all wearing their UM plastic pouches draped around their necks. For the privilege of keeping their kids from wandering astray in the duty free, buying 12-packs of Toblerones, parents pay $100 each way.
We got to the airport the proscribed three hours before the flight – usually that feels excessively cautious, but seeing the crowds jostling towards the check in counters during one of the busiest summers in history at Ben Gurion International, I was thankful to have the time.
I wasn’t sure exactly where to go – I’d been told something about a mysterious “counter 98” – so I went to ask a security person. “Come with me,” she said somewhat sternly. Uh, oh, I thought. Had I done something wrong? Nah, she was jumping us ahead of the thousand or so sweaty passengers to the front of the line. Cool – this was better than in the dot.com years when I got to stand in the “short line” to fly business class!
This also presented us with a problem – er, an opportunity – since we now had nearly two hours free before the UM’s were supposed to return to counter 98 to be collected by the El Al staff and whisked through security and passport control.
There aren’t a lot of pickings in the shopping lounge open to the public at the airport. A McDonald’s, a couple of cafes and a Pizza Hut. Also a pharmacy and a Steimatzky’s selling overpriced books that you can buy for half once you cross the Atlantic (hey, how come the social justice movement isn’t protesting the high price of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union?)
My son ordered a sandwich and a water. NIS 40, the kiosk salesperson said. Yowza, can you say price gouging of a captive audience. My slice of pizza was NIS 18 – just earlier in the day my son complained that he’d had to spend NIS 12 for a slice at the mall and that was pushing it.
We ate slowly, talked about the trip, the excitement of flying alone, and the Flash Pass Uncle Dave bought for the their day trip to the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Before we knew it, the two hours were up and I was hugging my big boy goodbye as he was sucked through the bowels of Terminal 3.
As I drove home, I thought about the time when I first flew alone, also to my grandparents, and how such an adventure marks a kind of rite of passage, even more momentous than the bar mitzvah that preceded my son’s trip just a few months before. Sure, getting an aliyah to the Torah is nice, but sitting in a window seat without your parents and ordering as much Coca Cola as you want – now that’s the real deal!