How to Pick Up an Unaccompanied Minor at the Airport

united express airlines logoMy extended family seems to be pathologically unable to create travel plans that aren’t complicated. Like “plan it on a big white board” complicated, with lots of moving parts. When we started planning a trip from our home in Boulder, Colorado up to Kalispell, Montana, I knew it’d end up being a tricky puzzle. And so it was. The players: me, my ex-wife Linda, her husband, and our two girls, Ashley and K-.

I drove. On the way up, K- was with me, easy enough. Linda and her husband also drove up a few days prior to be able to enjoy Missoula en route. Ashley flew up since she couldn’t take as much time off work. Do the math and you’ll realize that I haven’t specified how K- got back home. At 13 she was able, we had her fly home as an unaccompanied minor (“UM”) on a United Express hopper flight from Missoula, Montana to Denver, Colorado. Linda put her on the flight in Montana and I picked her up at Denver International Airport at the other end.

Which brings me to the topic of this particular post: How to meet and pick up an unaccompanied minor at the airport.

Here’s the key: When you buy an unaccompanied minor plane ticket, you need to specify who will drop them off at the departure gate, and who will pick them up at the arrival gate. On some airlines it’s free. On United Airlines it’s a rather steep $150 UM fee per flight, so her plane ticket had an instant $150 bonus fee applied since she was 15 or under. (United only recently upped their UM age to 15, it had formerly been under-13. My guess: bean counters analyzed ticket purchases and realized they could pull in a few thousand dollars/year by changing the age. Most 14 and 15yo children I know are quite capable of navigating an airport)

Anyway, I was a bit anxious because while I had confidence K- could figure out how to get off an airplane, find the airport train to get to the main terminal and find me at the exit fountain, heading in to meet her at the gate seemed smart and turns out to be required by the airline anyway: UM requires proof of ID from the parent on each end of the flight.

So with all that lead-in, here are the steps I went through to get to the gate and retrieve my girl!


I drove up to the airport an hour before her scheduled landing time. Denver International Airport is a big, complex airport and the security line can be pretty darn slow, so I compensated. But I don’t like “doing an OJ” through the airport anyway.

Pro tip: leave your pocketknife and just about everything else in the car. You do have to go through security.

Airport traffic was light for DIA:

driving up to denver international airport dia

Short-term parking is only $4/hr so I ended up paying $8.00 total by the time I left. Not too bad.

Once in the airport I went to the United Airlines Special Services desk. Some airlines have one check in desk for everything, but United has enough flights in and out of DIA that they break things down into two areas. The good news is that Special Services had essentially zero line, so I was chatting with the gate agents within a few minutes:

united airlines gate agents, dia

Rhonda was happy to help me out and I did have to tell her the flight, my daughter’s full name, and show my driver’s license. She checked the flight manifest passenger list, found K-, saw that my name was listed as the pick-up person, and printed out the paperwork I needed to get through airport security.

It’s pretty unassuming and doesn’t even list flight info:

airport unaccompanied minor um security gate access pass dia

In fact, the paperwork is really all about the bar code on the right: that’s what the security agent scans to confirm you have the right to pass through security and reach the gate.

Then it’s airport security. And at Denver International Airport, the lines can be long, slow, and grumpy:

airport security tsa line denver international airport dia

It took me about 15 minutes to get through security this time, not too bad. I did have to remove my shoes and belt, and I’ve learned to hold my wallet in my hand with the overhead scanner device, rather than leave it in a bucket. I just don’t want to even risk the tiny chance that my wallet could get misplaced. The TSA folk seem to be fine with it, though once in a while one will berate me and tell me that’s not okay and it’s impossible anyone else has ever let me through while holding my wallet.

From this point, it was a matter of taking the train to the far, far gate for a small commuter plane, DIA Gate B88. If you know the airport, you know that’s about 17 miles from the B terminal train station. Okay, maybe not quite 17 miles, but it feels like it!

I got to the gate no more than ten minutes before I saw my daughter’s plane pull up:

small commuter jet united express pulls up to gate, dia

If you’re doing the math, that means that it took me just shy of an hour to go from the parking lot to the gate. If you’re picking up an unaccompanied minor, you’ll also want to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get through your own airport, whether it’s super busy or a quiet small town commuter airport.

And, finally, my girl came off the flight, exhausted and not at all in the mood for a photo:

young girl coming off airplane plane gate corridor dia

Mission accomplished!

And now you know the gory details of exactly how to pick up an unaccompanied minor at a major airport. 🙂

3 comments on “How to Pick Up an Unaccompanied Minor at the Airport

  1. Dave– this is an unaccompanied minor that you already know!

    I feel lied to! :O)

    (and am simultaneously glad that you aren’t giving stalking tips to the inappropriately minded pedophiles!)

      • When I read your title, it sounded like a very inappropriate version of that classic book How To Pick Up Girls. But, for enterprising pimps. I am sure that is NOT what you intended. So I made a joke! Perhaps the title just hit me funny.

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