Sleep deprivation can make even the most mild-mannered, experienced travel writer into a complaint letter writing disgruntled passenger, so today I find myself needing to vent after what I, and I'm sure those seated around me, have termed the "flight from hell." My motives are purely altruistic, as my experiences should serve as a warning to other parents considering flying with very small children on this particular U.S.-based legacy carrier. Continental Airlines may pride itself on still providing blankets and pillows and even free food on its domestic flights, but its attendants' utter lack of concern and service on this international leg was in my opinion a disgrace.
Many people called me crazy for even attempting to fly long haul on my own with a six-month old infant and a nearly three-year-old toddler. But if it meant a chance to escape a New York winter and spend a month in Melbourne, Australia with a stop-over in Hong Kong, then I was willing to take the risk. After all, 100-degree days awaited me, along with the open arms of friends of family. The flight over was a blur, which means that it was probably uneventful, but the return flight from Hong Kong to Newark was memorable, for all the wrong reasons.
I warn you that this article may make you reconsider ever flying with young children again, even if you have a partner to help you, but I feel it is my duty to share. Perhaps it was the fact that Qantas had lost my stroller somewhere over the Pacific on a previous flight that made this final leg of my trip start inauspiciously. I had my 20-something pound baby in the Baby Bjorn at Hong Kong airport and was juggling three pieces of hand luggage and an inquisitive daughter when I noticed that it was the final call for boarding my Newark bound flight. Sure it was 35 minutes earlier than the check-in person had actually written on my boarding pass, so I ran the final 500 yards to the gate and was already feeling a sense of impending doom. Nobody asked if I needed assistance with my bags (which was a shock considering that on the Qantas flight to Hong Kong, the flight crew bent over backwards to help me, moved other passengers' luggage so I had additional space, lifted my bags and even held my baby).
As soon as I sat down in the assigned bulkhead row, a flight attendant told me that I needed to store my luggage, but of course the overhead bins were full, so my bags were carted away to three separate unknown destinations without giving me a chance to retrieve anything. My three-year-old was rather upset at the prospect of not having any distractions for take off, like a toy or a DVD to watch. On other airlines, the crew kindly hands out activity kits or games for kids, but not on this flight. So my daughter proceeded to scream and cry for about 20 minutes while I sat there, rather embarrassed, trying to feed my other daughter, praying that nobody would throw me off the aircraft (as was the case on an AirTran Airways flight in January last year).
After take off and a bit of calming down, nobody came to open the bassinet, so there I was with a sleeping baby on my lap, cutting off my left arm's blood circulation for at least an hour before I cornered an indifferent attendant and requested some help. She installed the very tatty-looking bassinet, but then left without offering to set it up or even lay down a blanket so I could comfortably move the sleeping infant from my arms to a horizontal position without waking her. Luckily a fellow mother (Debbie from Hong Kong via Cleveland) sitting next to me turned into my guardian angel and came to my rescue (as she did several times during the arduous 14 plus hour day time flight). Luckily I had my own blankets to use as sheets as I don't trust the cleanliness of airline blankets for myself, let along my baby. After some searching, I found my hand luggage that had been distributed throughout the cabin.
The in-seat hand set that operated everything from the TV to the call button wasn't working, so I had to delicately wake up my sleeping daughter seated next to me to use hers. I tried calling several times but to no avail, as no one bothered to come. So I got up, walked to the galley and requested hot water to make up a bottle of formula. This is something I repeated several times throughout the flight as it seemed that the staff was determined to avoid me and my children at all costs. Each time I entered the galley, the staff looked at me like I had the plague. On one occasion I got stuck in the aisle behind the trolley distributing drinks and although they could have easily moved one or two rows down so I could get back to my children, instead, they proceeded to serve the entire block of seats before allowing my through. In the mean time, my baby was crying in her bassinet and onlookers glared at me like I was the worst mother in the world for leaving my hungry child.
When it was meal time, despite seeing that I was feeding my baby a bottle, the attendants didn't offer to come back with my meal later, or keep it warm for me. They just offered me fish or steak and dumped the trays. I asked about my daughter's pre-ordered children's meal and was told that they had all been served and there was nothing left. Strangely, some time later, my child's meal did arrive, by which time, my daughter had fallen back asleep. My meal was cold and even less edible by the time I finally got to open the foil cover. So I resorted to eating the child's meal -- a bland pasta and tomato sauce dish.
When the battery on my toddler's portable DVD player died in the middle of Finding Nemo, I knew I was in for at least an hour or two of rolling Play Doh balls and retrieving them from the seat crevices. I recall passing several hours pacing up and down the aisles with my baby trying to keep her occupied when all she wanted to do was roll on a mat and play. I looked on with envy at the eye mask wearing passengers quietly snoring in their seats and remembered the days when I too had the ability to sleep on planes. There was a lovely one-hour period when both my children were asleep, but of course my hand set wasn't working so the only movie I had access to was a Chinese drama... in Chinese, so I opted for a 15-minute snooze instead, while my hand set was being "re-set." It finally worked, long enough for me to watch the last few minutes of a film, before the hand set went on the fritz again, denying me any respite from the boredom and monotony of the rest of the flight.
Not once during the entire 14-plus-hour ordeal did a single staff member ask me if I was okay, if they could help me, or god forbid if they could watch my children while I took a 60-second toilet break. Although my bulkhead seat was right next to the toilet, just getting there was an ordeal. At one stage, a flight attendant asked me to remove dirty diapers from my area. I informed her that there were no dirty diapers and that the smell was actually emanating from the toilet directly in front of me. Perhaps if they had bothered to clean the toilets, the smell would not have been an issue. My mind kept wandering back to previous flights I had taken, especially on Asian carriers where the flight attendants had offered to wash out and warm bottles for me, where they were constantly checking on me to see if I needed anything, even holding my children and offering to take care of them while I had a brief rest. But alas, I was on a U.S. airline where it seems that staff seniority, not customer service performance, determines who gets to fly this particular coveted route.
As the flight finally touched down at Newark Liberty and I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel (and the prospect of sleeping in my own bed), I was only somewhat surprised to see a crew member text-messaging on her cell phone from the jump seat before the aircraft wheels were actually on the ground -- so much for passenger safety.
So ultimately the lessons learned were this. If you can, avoid traveling solo with more than one child under the age of three, even if it means paying someone to fly with you, or forking out the extra cash or points to fly business class. But if you have no choice, adhere to the following recommendations:
- Choose a kid friendly airline, especially when traveling long haul. I strongly recommend the Asian airlines, like Thai, Singapore, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian, plus Gulf Air and Emirates and definitely Qantas if your travels take you to Australia. A big "thumbs down" to Continental. Unfortunately there is no one definitive source for information but you can go to individual airline websites to assess their amenities or check out these articles and websites for some insight into ratings:
- Sonic Baby Boom: Child Friendly Airlines
- Family Friendly Airlines Comparison
- Babyworld's Best Family Airlines
- Hotel Fun 4 Kids
- Ask for special assistance when booking your flight or request it at the check in area. This could include help going through customs, priority boarding or a buggy ride rather than walking to your gate.
- Arrive at the airport three, not two hours before the flight to avoid any last minutes crises or rushes through security.
- At check in, ensure that all special seat and meal requests are confirmed.
- If you have an infant, you will be seated in a bulk head row with a bassinet, but keep in mind that the arm rests do not move in these rows so you won't be able to stretch out or have another child rest his or her head on your lap.
- If you are formula feeding a baby, make sure you get your boiled water from an airport café before you board the aircraft. Take a small bottle of detergent with you, along with a bottle brush so you can keep bottles hygienic while flying.
- Do not rely on flight attendants to be able to help you with anything before take off.
- Inform your flight staff that you will need assistance throughout the flight.
- Take plenty of extra clothes, activities and food on board for your children.
- Ensure that you have toys, games and favorite comfort items at hand for take off, not in your hand luggage, which when seated in the bulkhead will need to be stowed in an overhead bin and not at your feet.
- Enquire when booking whether your aircraft has electrical outlets at each seat. This can be extremely helpful for portable DVD players that inevitably will run out of juice just when you need then most. Also bring your own headphones/ear piece for your child as the ones that the airline provide may muffle your system's sound.
- Be prepared for the fact that you may not get any sleep. Invariably if one child is sleeping, the other will be awake.
- Rely on the kindness of strangers -- it will keep you sane and although you would never leave your baby with a complete stranger in the real world, at 30,000 feet, you often have no choice.
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