April 19, 2011 — -- Ed Hula likes kids. Really, he does. This Atlanta-based frequent flier even likes sitting next to them because they take up less room than adults. But don't get him started on the "shriekers."
On a packed, nine-hour Delta flight to London recently, Hula sat near a number of youngsters of varying ages who were, well, shrieking. "There would be 10 minutes of silence in between outbursts," he noted, before the screaming would start up all over again. Would he pay a fee for an adults-only section? You better believe it. Put him down for $25 each way.
"I'd pay 50 bucks," said former model Ginny Kaneen Quigley, a Los Angeles-based leisure traveler who's had her own ordeals with children behaving badly. Separate sections on planes, anyone? Or how about separate planes altogether?
Maybe it was an April Fools' Day prank, but when European low-cost carrier Ryanair recently announced it would start adults-only flights in October, you could hear the cheering from Dallas to Dublin. According to Ryanair's press release, "When it comes to children we all love our own but would clearly prefer to avoid other people's little monsters when traveling."
Sure, it sounds crazy ("little monsters" in an official press release?), but so did the airline's earlier idea of installing pay toilets on its planes. In fact, Ryanair floats so many attention-getting balloons that I sometimes think of it as the Donald Trump of airlines. Still, this one struck that well-strummed chord on kids-and-planes.
A recent TripAdvisor survey noted that about a third of the fliers it polled would willingly pay to avoid sitting with children (most of them also gave a thumbs up to "kid free zones" at pools and restaurants). However, it should be noted that special interest flights don't have a particularly good track record.
Think of Hooters Air, the Myrtle Beach-based airline that lasted only from 2003 to 2006 (and was actually aimed at -- don't laugh -- golfers). Or maybe you remember those all-nudist flights that were trumpeted by a German charter a couple of years ago. Those planes never got off the ground (maybe the pilots were nervous about spilling their hot coffee). Then there was Smintair, the all-smoking airline for business travelers, another idea from Germany that apparently went up in a puff of ... well, you know.
Anything on the horizon? Maybe. A three-year-old company called Satisfly has plans to use Facebook and other tools to allow passengers to choose "compatible" seatmates (example: chatty types vs. snoozers). Maybe this is an idea that could be taken a step further.
How about a Match.com for the skies? You could call it SeatMeet.com (well you could, if GoDaddy hadn't already laid claim to that name). It might be fun to while away a 10-hour flight with someone who could turn out to be Mr. or Ms. Right. Maybe we could get Virgin America in on the act -- it already allows you to upgrade via your seatback screen and perhaps it could work something out so you could look around the plane and request a specific traveling companion.
On the other hand, if your "match" turns about to be a loser (or thinks you're the loser), a screaming kid or two might be a welcome diversion.
Speaking of screaming, Jim Cramer of "Mad Money" and I were both appearing on a TV segment devoted to this topic when the King of Shriekers told me that he, too, would pay to get away from noisy kids (he also said he'd pay to avoid sitting near FWI: people who Fly While Sick).
I doubt we'll ever see adults-only flights aside from a charter or two, and that's because so many of us are parents. We may not like hearing other peoples' children screaming, but we've all been there and most of us can sympathize with parents who are desperately trying to calm the kids. As for adults who ignore misbehaving imps, I like to think there's a spot reserved for them on a plane that's been stuck on a tarmac for hours with no air conditioning and overflowing toilets.
OK, so no separate planes, but I do think fee-based separate sections are on the way. And to an extent, these sections are already here, and I don't mean first and business class. Next time you select a seat, take a look at where the priciest ones are: that's right, just behind the upper cabin. The cost makes them unattractive to a lot of families, which may make them extra attractive to serenity seekers.
Yet there are worse things than screaming kids. Sometimes air travel literally stinks, and I'm thinking of the fellow who was tossed off an Air Canada Jazz flight last year because of seatmates' complaints that he was "too smelly." Sitting next to drunks can be even worse. Some have even been known to lunge and snap like dogs at passengers and flight attendants.
Even Ed Hula, who hates the "shriekers" says there are more irritating seatmates, for instance, slobs: "Men in tank tops, women dressed in gym shorts and anybody wearing flip-flops."
So who (or what) is the seatmate of your nightmare?