Should an airline's first-class section be adults-only?
Ask passengers like James Armstrong, and you'll hear a compelling reason for keeping babies in the back -- if not off the plane entirely.
"I was on a flight from Bangkok to Beijing," he remembers. "Royal Thai Airways."
Just to set the stage, this is what Thai's first-class section looks like. Nice, huh?
Anyway, there was this German couple with two young children seated a few rows away. "One of the children was running about, loud and disruptive."
With junior making the rounds, touching the seats, sneezing and sniffling all over the place, Armstrong became infected.
"Nothing like spending two days in Beijing in bed with the flu," he says.
Babies on planes is a hot topic again, thanks to Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) banning young passengers on some of its larger jets. Originally, the airline said it was in response to complains from other premium passengers. It later changed its tune, saying it didn't have the proper facilities to accommodate infants.
Either way, Malaysia Airlines' actions got passengers talking.
"I'm quite serious when I say that I'd rather be on a flight with smokers than with babies," says reader Dick Carlson. "I'd love to see an airline that offered adult-only flights -- maybe late evening or red-eye. While I understand that the little squirts have to travel somehow, having one squawk and scream five inches from my ear isn't anything I want to endure for six hours."
By way of full disclosure, I used to think babies on planes were a nuisance, no matter where they sat. And I had to laugh when Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) announced it would begin offering child-free flights earlier this year.
Look at the date on the press release, in case you're wondering if they're serious.
But there's a kernel of truth to its joke.
"When it comes to children we all love our own but would clearly prefer to avoid other people's little monsters when traveling," Ryanair's Stephen McNamara is quoted as saying. And those words certainly ring true for a lot of passengers, even if Ryanair didn't really mean it.
I hear the same sentiments from among younger airline passengers and articulated by childless thirtysomething airline commentators. They don't want to sit next to anyone else's little monsters, let alone their screaming little monsters.
The "ban babies" from first class -- and indeed, sometimes from the plane altogether -- proponents' argument goes something like this.
(I'm quoting without attribution, because I've received several emails that are virtually identical.)
- I pay a premium to sit in first or business class and I don't want my to be disturbed by a crying, screaming or misbehaving child.
- While I understand the parent pays as much as I do, I don't disturb them by screaming or crying or misbehaving and I should not have to deal with their child if they are screaming or crying or carrying on.
- Some children are absolute angels and some act like they are the spawn of Satan. While I understand a child's or baby's reaction to the change in environment is unpredictable, that doesn't mean anyone should be subjected to it either. A person's choice to have children and fly with said children does not take precedence over or trump my choice to not have children.
Then there are also a great many parents today that think the world should have to deal with it because "s/he is a child", when the reality is if you choose to have children you should not inflict them on others, especially strangers.
As clichéd as it sounds, your perspective changes when you have monsters of your own. Notice, I didn't put "monsters" in quotes. I've endured too many flights, and one or two in first class, where my kids didn't behave well.
So I actually find myself sympathizing with those who would want to keep children, and particularly babies, out of the very best seats.
Infants probably don't belong up front any more than they do in a five-star restaurant. But keeping kids off the plane, period? Not practical.
If young passengers were barred from flying, then how, pray tell, would they travel? By boat? Or spending four days strapped into a baby seat of a car?
"I find crying babies on a plane just as annoying as the next person, whether they're in first class or not," says Linda Snow. "But ever since air travel was invented, the rule has been, 'You get what you pay for.' If people can pay for first class and want to travel with their babies, they get to."
Malaysia Airlines' decision to keep babies out of its first-class section on certain flights is as courageous as it is controversial. It acknowledges the fact that its premium cabin is an experience meant primarily for adult passengers.
There will no doubt still be angry parents who think their little brats deserve to sit in first class. Fortunately for them, they have a choice of airlines.
And in the end, the market will decide whether baby-free premium cabins will fly or not.
Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.