Babies on Planes: It's War!

Maybe parents, not babies, are the problem.

March 16, 2012— -- Time to examine another burning travel question of our age. Not "Will fees ever disappear?" (They won't.) No, today's question is, "Is there a place for babies on planes?"

The answer is yes. But the question really is, precisely where on an aircraft? Some advocate child-free zones or "cry-room" areas like you see at churches, while at least one airline has declared a class war on babies.

Parents today get it from all sides. Whether it's dirty looks from fellow fliers or the Transportation Security Administration forcing a woman to go to a public lavatory to pump breast milk because she couldn't bring empty bottles with her. The public outcry was so loud on that one that the TSA later apologized.

While I'm sympathetic to parents (I'm one myself), let's look at some recent children-behaving-badly incidents, as well as a few nominees for "worst parents on planes" and see the tricks that can turn despised parents into heroes.

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As most parents know, babies are not the biggest problem when it comes to children in flight. All babies do is sleep, eat and, well, they do need the occasional diaper change. Unless they're colicky or so sensitive to cabin pressure changes that a pacifier is rendered meaningless, they're no big deal. I know from experience; I've traveled with our daughter since she was just a couple of months old.

What does set a passenger's blood boiling are toddlers. Take the recent case of a 2-year-old versus a JetBlue pilot. According to news accounts, the child threw a tantrum (as toddlers do). But it apparently took her parents some time to wrestle her into the seat. Money quote, from the child's mother: "We were holding [her] down with all of our might, seatbelt on and I said, 'We have them seated, can we go now?'" Answer from pilot: No.

I have to chuckle over the "all of our might" bit, but JetBlue wasn't laughing. As the airline saw it, the family was not in compliance with the fasten-your-seatbelt order for a "prolonged time period," so back to the gate they went and goodbye went the toddler and her family. Yep, they were kicked off the plane.

At least they got on the plane, albeit briefly. Malaysia Airlines bans babies in first class. There's nothing about this on the carrier's website, but I hear it's been an unwritten policy for years, and their CEO gleefully tweeted about the ban last year.

No baby ban on Ryanair, though, despite what you may have heard. Sure, there were all those news stories last year about how the European discount carrier was starting up child-free flights, but what many in the media failed to notice was that the Ryanair news release touting this exciting development bears the date April 1. If that wasn't enough of a clue, how about the line in the news release that referred to children as "little monsters?"

Too bad, say some fliers, who would be just as happy to see children seated far, far away from them. This includes a Delta Diamond Medallion traveler of my acquaintance who flies in and out of West Palm Beach, Fla. What this anonymous flier really hates is being seated in first class and having an unruly kid in coach directly behind her, "kicking the back of my seat or screaming, and there's no amount of first-class leg room that can mollify me in those instances," she said. I completely understand. But what can you do?

Actually, it's what the parents can do, or more to the point, what they often fail to do, that is the issue. First, the two biggest errors parents make when traveling with children are:

Error #1
Exercising zero control over kids. This is a major complaint of passengers: Parents who are unwilling or unable to get the little darlings to behave. We get it. Kids act up, they throw tantrums, but nothing is more maddening than parents who just sit there and stare at the meltdown.

Sure, sometimes there isn't much you can to thwart crazed kids, but at least fake it. That's right, if parents merely look as if they're trying to stop the insanity, they'll have the sympathy of fellow passengers. Do nothing, and you'd better have a thick hide because all those flying fingers around you will be barraging the rest of us with tweets about what a disgrace you are.

Or you could be kicked off the plane, which is what Southwest did to a mom and toddler team when the little one refused to stop screaming.

Error #2
Mistaking any part of the plane (beyond the lavatory) as a changing station. Harried parents have been known to change infants on empty airline seats and - brace yourself - on tray tables. Need I say this is totally unacceptable?

Now for a couple of things parents should do.

Take their kids' shoes off.
A simple trick for the seat-kickers among us: Take their shoes off. They will kick. It will hurt. They will stop.

Free drinks.
I've heard this one from several veteran travelers now and it's real simple: When the kids go berserk, turn to the rows around you and say the four magic words: 'Drinks are on me'. Amazing how this'll turn the haters around.

I'll bet you've got some stories. I'd love to hear them. Just don't try to tell me about them over the screams of your child as he's kicking my seatback.