Holiday handovers no joy ride Travel: All family members feel the stress when children of broken homes fly around the country to visit parents at Christmas time.


Amid the post-Christmas bustle at Baltimore Washington International Airport yesterday, with couples and families big and small rushing onto planes, laden with bags and Christmas gifts, more than the occasional lone parent and child stood sharing a quiet moment.

Behave yourself, don't yell on the plane, don't talk to strangers, keep your toys close to you.

And don't leave with anybody but Daddy when you get there.

"I just worry about him every year when he goes," said Jo-El Sinclair as she gave 10-year-old Joseph the familiar instructions before he boarded a 12: 25 p.m. Southwest flight to St. Louis to spend the rest of the holidays with his father.

"You know, airplane crashes and the usual stuff," said Sinclair, an Aberdeen accountant who has been divorced for eight years. "And I always tell him not to talk to strangers, but it's hard for him. He loves to talk."

Most people still bask in yuletide bliss the day after Christmas. But for children of divorced parents, the 26th is often an especially trying time.

Having spent Christmas with one parent, the children are usually packed up and sent the next day to the other parent, according to Jane Murphy, associate professor and director of the Family Law Clinic at University of Baltimore's School of Law. Some airlines described the day after Christmas as one of the busier dates in the year for travel by unaccompanied minors.

At BWI yesterday, goodbyes, last-minute reminders and tight, tight hugs were easy to pick out as children and teens were bundled off to divorced parents around the country.

Doris Northcutt of Washington, D.C., looked distressed at the thought of her two daughters embarking on their first solo plane ride to see their father in Dallas. She and her husband separated during the past year, and this was the children's first Christmas split between the two parents.

Mandi Northcutt, 10, was nervous.

"I don't wanna leave Mom," Mandi said. "And the last time I sat on the plane, I cried. I was scared of the engines and stuff."

Elizabeth, 12, was more concerned with the plastic American Airlines tag she had to wear around her neck identifying her as an unaccompanied minor. She grimaced at being labeled a child.

For Jason and Karen Cornelius, yesterday's flight to Nashville, Tenn., was their first plane ride ever, as their father had only recently moved there from Osterburg, Pa., where the separated family had continued to live since the parents' divorce four years ago.

Jason, 15, said he was looking forward to the trip, but 12-year-old Karen wandered around, clutching her book bag, looking dazed. With their mother working that day, their aunt, Maryann Kauffman, had taken them to the airport two hours before their 1: 25 flight to acquaint them with airports, let them watch planes take off and land, and help Karen "get that feeling out of her gut before she takes off."

Even after all that -- and a trip to Burger King -- Karen still looked more than slightly green, which made Kauffman even more upset as the children waved their last goodbye. Turning away so they wouldn't see her eyes redden, Kauffman said she was worried.

"You never know what can happen," she said, dabbing her eyes as she headed out for her 2 1/2 -hour drive back to Osterburg. "It is sad that there has to be that many kids separated from their

parents, that they have to spend part of Christmas here and part of it there. I feel bad for them. I guess that's one of the reasons why I feel so broken up."

Holidays are stressful for children of split homes, but there are ways to make it less so, Murphy said.

She said divorced parents should try to minimize changes in travel plans so the child or children feel less unstable during this period. Parents should also encourage children to keep in contact with the parents from whom they're separated -- which she said doesn't often happen.

"Also, maybe thinking about a visitation schedule that really allows [the children] to enjoy the holidays," Murphy said. "Like spending Thanksgiving with one parent and Christmas with the other so they don't have to be traveling during the holiday season."

Murphy said the holidays also are a pain for lawyers.

Dec. 26 "is a sort of a nightmare day for family lawyers," she said, explaining that the lawyers are called by parents upset about delayed returns by their children. "Or the worst-case scenario is if there is no return at all."

Holiday handovers are especially tough on divorced parents with very young children. To see his 2-year-old daughter, Katelyn, plumber Ryan Friesenhahn left his home in San Antonio, Texas, at 4: 45 a.m. yesterday, hopped on a 40-minute flight to Dallas and waited a half-hour before catching a 2 1/2 -hour flight to BWI.

After picking up Katelyn from her mother at the airport, Friesenhahn waited an hour before hopping on the flight back home to Texas with her. He estimated he would get home at 8 p.m.

The flights to pick up Katelyn for a weeklong Christmas visit in San Antonio have occurred in the two holiday seasons since Friesenhahn's divorce. (Including a return trip at the end of the visit, the flights cost a total of at least $700, he said.)

"I haven't even seen the outside of this airport," he said, flipping through a Barney book with Katelyn to pass time at BWI. "You get sore sitting on the plane so much. My back is killing me, and I still have to fly back. But it's worth it.

"This," he said, patting Katelyn's head, "is my pride and joy."

The children might disagree about whether the hassle is worth it.

"Sometimes I guess I understand why it's better that they broke up," said Michelle French, 14, as she waited to board a flight to Columbus, Ohio, to see her mother. Michelle, of Severna Park, has made this trip every year since she was 4.

"But other times," she added, "I just wish they could be together so I wouldn't have to fly anywhere."

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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