Kids on a plane.
No four words incite more acrimonious debate among air travelers. Not "your flight is delayed." Not "here's a new fee." Not even "snakes on a plane."
On one side, you have childless customers who just want a little civility while they're locked inside a pressurized aluminum tube. And on the other, parents who believe airlines should accommodate anyone, anytime -- particularly their beloved offspring.
Talk about oil and water. Or maybe, nitroglycerin.
Children and planes can be a combustible mix. Consider:
Two hours into her recent JetBlue flight from New York to Las Vegas, Marilyn Parver watched as a loud child that had been annoying other passengers nonstop since takeoff finally made one of them snap. She videotaped the ensuing fight, and oddly, was threatened with arrest after refusing to delete the footage.
When Tamera Jo Freeman's kids began to argue about a window shade on a Frontier Airlines flight and spilled a Bloody Mary into her lap, she spanked her offspring, which provoked a confrontation with a flight attendant. Freeman threw a can of tomato juice on the floor, and was arrested and convicted of a federal felony defined as an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act.
Kate Penland's toddler son wouldn't stop repeating the words "bye, bye plane" as a Continental Express flight from Atlanta to Oklahoma City taxied down the runway. A flight attendant suggested that Penland administer baby Benadryl, a medication that's often used to sedate overactive kids. When Penland refused, the flight turned around and both passengers were kicked off the plane.
Who can forget the case of Daniel Reed Cunningham, the Northwest Airlines flight attendant charged with spiking a 19-month-old girl's apple juice with Xanax, a prescription depressant?
Question is, what to do about the littlest air travelers?
A decade ago, the last time I wrote about this issue, my sympathies were with solo passengers who wanted to ban babies on board. But now I have three kids -- ages 6, 4 and 2 --and I'm leaning to the parents' side.
Here are five ways we might approach the kids-on-a-planes problem -- and what you can do to become part of the solution:
1. Kids'-Only Sections
"I would gladly pay an extra $20 each way to avoid the noise and headaches," says Randy Gillespie, a travel agent from Collingswood, N.J., adding that such an option should be built into the fare rather than offered an optional add-on. Kids'-only sections have been tried on an informal basis in the past, but never quite caught on. Families couldn't be forced into one section of a plane any more than kids could be excluded from, say, first class. But you can still find your own "kid free" section on a plane. On domestic flights, children may not sit in exit rows, and they're unlikely to make an appearance in business- and first-class sections, where seats are super-expensive.
2. Ban 'Em
"I don't know whether it would be practical to have child-free flights," says Bill Armstrong, an information technology consultant from Calgary. "But certainly, I am on the list of people who would pay a little extra for that." Armstrong recently endured a nine-hour flight with a child that "had developed a uniquely annoying scream" that didn't stop and could be heard even while Armstrong wore headphones. But is getting rid of all children a viable solution? Probably not. That's not to say crewmembers shouldn't be more vigilant about looking for potentially disruptive kids during boarding and warning their parents that outbursts and other forms of unapproved behavior won't be tolerated. If you suspect you'll have a problem with an unruly child sitting next to you -- and this is especially true if it's your own child -- then speak up before the cabin doors close. A crewmember might be able to move you to a different section. Or a different flight.
3. No, Get Rid of the Adults!
In fairness, I can't raise the issue of banning kids without handing the mic to angry parents who think annoying adults should be banned, too. So here it goes. "Are there really more disruptive kids on planes than obnoxious adults?" asks Hayley Schultz, who travels with her three kids, ages 5, 7, and 9, and notes that they sit in their seats, read books, and watch TV without incident. Good point. If you want to see annoying adults, just take a red-eye flight from Las Vegas, where half the unlucky passengers are trying to drown their sorrows one mini-bottle of cheap whiskey at a time. Or board a wintertime flight from any New York airport to Palm Beach, Fla., a route known for its preponderance of irritating passengers. Schultz represented some of the more levelheaded comments I've received from parents who thought this whole debate shouldn't be happening at all. Point taken -- but not enough to end the discussion.
4. Encourage Responsible Parenting
Many in-flight altercations are a result of negligent parenting, to hear some passengers talk about it. A 5-year-old on a flight from Charlotte to Albany, N.Y, recently kicked Mauranna Sherman, an administrative assistant from Forest, Va., repeatedly. When she turned around, the boy's mother just shrugged. "Mom had no bag of toys or books or techie stuff" to distract her son, she remembered. Airlines bear some responsibility in helping adults prepare for a flight with their offspring, and their websites could do a far better job of telling new parents what to expect on a flight. But ultimately, of course, it's the parents' job to make sure they've packed enough food and entertainment for the flight. I've heard of childless passengers packing their own snacks, toys and games to deal with stressed-out kids they might encounter on a flight. That's not a bad idea.
5. Pass New Seatbelt Laws
"I would like to see kids more secure during flight," says Nancy Hatten, a flight attendant who lives in Farmington, Minn. "Parents of children under two should be required to purchase a passenger seat for the child and then keep them buckled in a child car seat during flight." That would require parents to buy a seat for their kids, which they currently don't. But it would almost certainly make air travel safer and saner for everyone else. Toddlers strapped in a car seat usually come to terms with their circumstances quickly and know that a stroll down the aisle to visit the pilot is not possible. Airlines can make it easier for parents to buy an extra seat by offering a discount and providing parents with special seats or child-friendly seatbelts, the same way car rental companies do.
Even though I have three children, I still can't quite bring myself to siding with many parents, who seem to feel as if their kids should be able to fly anywhere, anytime and behave in any way they want to. (They're kids, after all!)
My offspring are capable of some of the most annoying behavior ever. After all, I'm their father. So when a flight attendant tells me my kids are out of line, I'm the first to agree. I wouldn't dream of seating my children in business- or first class even if I could afford it. That's a topic for another column, though.
But ban kids outright? I used to like the idea, at least in theory, but now see eye-to-eye with readers like Lisa Hirsch, a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist.
"What are parents with small children supposed to do?" she asked me. "Never travel?"
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.