Family Travel: "Baby Discrimination"

Karl Neuman, M.D.

Fasten your seatbelts – family air travel is heading for turbulence. Children are becoming persona non grata in the supposedly friendly skies.

London’s Daily Mail reports that several major airlines are considering child-free sections on aircraft and child-free flights. The Wall Street Journal asks, “Will new airline seating proposals create “baby ghettos” in the back of planes?”  Blogs talk about families being seated separately, sometimes leaving small children in middle seats among strangers, unless parents succeed in convincing passengers to swap seats – and middle seats are difficult to swap. Airline personnel may or may not assist in “seat swapping diplomacy.”

(Will infants have to stand up for their civil rights in Occupy Wall Street-type protests?  Of course, literally, infants cannot stand up. But they can raise their heads and wail to make their wills known. Will hordes of infants crawl into airports, creep beneath the crowds, and lie down blocking ticket counters and security check points? Will police dare to interfere?)

Here is what is happening:

Airlines are flying low financially. Ever-increasing operating costs are shrinking profits. Some airlines are in bankruptcy. To increase revenue, they are scheduling fewer flights and eliminating scores of amenities, many of which affect families.

Getting your family seated together is becoming a hassle. Fewer flights mean fewer available empty seats, giving reservation agents (or computers) less flexibility to find seats together. Worse, confirmed reservations can become void when sparsely filled planes are cancelled, sometimes days before flights. Passengers are then placed on other flights, ones already partially filled, and sometimes with different seat configurations, leaving few blocks of seats for families.

Family amenities are being curtailed. Amenities cost airlines money. Cost saving measures already instituted on domestic U.S. flights include: discontinuing checking heavy, non-collapsible strollers at the gate; removing microwave ovens  (no longer needed since there is no hot food service) making bottle heating problematic; not storing milk; requiring parents to bring birth certificates to prove that a lap child is really younger than 2 years of age. And don’t count on pillows, blankets and snacks.

Families may no longer board first. Several major airlines have discontinued this practice. One airline charges $10 a person to guarantee a spot in the first boarding group in coach. Family boarding now comes after first class and frequent fliers. The reasons given: parents and kids lugging car seats, diaper bags, videogames and other large toys clog the aisles and delay general boarding.

Baggage allowances have been reduced. Don’t count on airline personnel to look the other way when you lug children’s travel paraphernalia aboard. Most airlines allow one or two items considered hand baggage, strictly enforce the rules, and charge hefty fees if more are carried.

Choice seats are no longer available for families. Bulkhead seats at the front of coach cabins have space for airline cribs and for tending to infants. But many airlines now charge extra for such seats and reserve them for frequent flyers, people with disabilities and VIPs.  

Make family reservations early and check on them frequently. Call ahead and ask whether the amenities you expect are available. If not, plan accordingly. If you can afford it, pay extra for bulkhead seats. U.S. airlines are more child-friendly on their overseas flights than on domestic flights. This is to compete with foreign airlines which tend to be very child- friendly.

Business travelers are behind the movement to segregate children. Surveys of such travelers show that about 75% believe that children on planes are “irritating.” Business travelers fly frequently, do their work in flight, and request (sometimes, demand) seats away from children. And they have clout with the airlines. “Flights through hell” is how some describe long flights sitting near screaming infants or in front of a toddler who continuously kicks or pulls on that seat. An Australian airline recently settled a lawsuit by a passenger who said a screaming child caused her to lose some of her hearing.

Parents are often unfairly blamed for unruly children.While some parents are oblivious to their misbehaving children, in fact, even well intentioned parents have limited means to soothe crying infants and calm rambunctious toddlers.  Air travel subjects young children to disrupted eating and sleeping schedules, limited and uncomfortable space, unfamiliar surroundings, and perhaps ear or stomach discomfort.  Parents should set rules for their children and enforce them as best as they can, and carry plenty of snacks and games. Sedating children is not recommended.

Will airlines implement child-free sections and child-free flights? One major Asian airline already bars children from first class, and perhaps other airlines will also do so. But, likely, segregation in economy class, where most families sit, won’t “fly,” and raises questions. If family sections are full and seats available elsewhere, would families be barred from that flight? Must families with well-behaved children sit in the family section? Will adults traveling alone accept seats near children? Will soundproof partitions and separate toilets have to be installed to contain/accommodate children?

For more information about keeping kids healthy and safe for travel and outdoor activities, please go to kidstraveldoc.com.