Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/17/2008 2:03:00 PM ET 2008-07-17T18:03:00

Earlier this month, Wendy Slaughter, her four young kids and her pregnant sister were scheduled to fly on Southwest Airlines from Detroit to Seattle via Phoenix.

They got as far as Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. That's where airport police met the flight and informed Slaughter that Southwest had deemed her family's onboard behavior too disruptive to fly. Citing concern for the children, other passengers and the flight crew, the airline refused to let the family board their connecting flight.

What was the problem?
You can read a news report about the incident here, but according to Southwest Airlines' spokesperson Christi Day, during the four-hour flight, “the kids were up and out of their seats when the seatbelt sign was on,” and despite repeated efforts by the flight attendants to get the family to settle down, “both the parents and the children were unruly and uncontained in the cabin.” “It was a rare situation,” said Day, “and to be escalated to this point one can imagine and draw conclusions.”

No need to imagine. Wendy Slaughter told TV news crews that her kids were on their first plane ride and admittedly “out of control, restless, and excited ...”  But Pat McElroy, a Portland, Ore., resident seated right behind the family, says it wasn't just the kids. “I had more of an issue with the adults. They kept shouting and screaming at the kids. From Detroit to Phoenix I don't think there were five seconds in a row when there was quiet. It just got on people's nerves. I rolled up pieces of the cocktail napkins and put them in my ears it was so bad.”

McElroy said the crew “did the best they could and were as nice as they could be,” but ultimately decided “they were not going to inflict these people on another group of passengers.”

McDonald's and Motel 6
Denied boarding on their connecting flight, Slaughter and her family were stuck at the Phoenix airport overnight. They said they had no money to pay for meals or for a place to stay. So Lt. Rick Gehlbach of the Phoenix Police Airport Bureau says once everyone's statement was taken, the officers took up a collection, bought the family dinner at McDonald's and found a nearby motel willing to house the family overnight. The next day, the Slaughter party flew to Seattle on a different airline and Southwest refunded their fares.

How did this happen?
Booting an entire family off a plane mid-trip does sound awfully serious. Southwest's Day assured me that it was most definitely a “last resort” option. But it does seem pretty clear that it wasn't just the kids who were inexperienced fliers. These days, air travel can make anyone want to yell and scream, but this family seemed especially ill-equipped and unprepared for travel.

Of course, anyone’s kid can get antsy, misbehave or have a meltdown on an airplane. According to Anya Clowers with JetWithKids.com, whether a tantrum gets you and your child booted off the plane might very well hinge on whether or not you can remember that you’re the adult and that, no matter what, you need to keep your composure. “Children respond to adult tension, so if your child is disruptive in flight, it’s important that no matter what happens you do not lose your cool. Talk to your child. Try to speak to them at their level. But do not yell.”

Good advice, but what if that doesn’t work? “If your child is disruptive,” said Clowers, “make eye contact with those around you and apologize. Often, tensions rise among passengers when it seems like the parents are ignoring a child’s bad behavior.”

Inoculation, preparation, perspiration and participation
Of course, all kids should be well-mannered travelers in the making. But like adults, even well-behaved kids can have a bad travel day, especially if it’s their first time flying and they don't know what to expect. So here is a four-point refresher course for adults taking a plane trip with kids in tow this summer:

Inoculation
As Clowers mentions, kids pick up on adult tension. Much of travel is beyond your control, but you can inoculate your family against some of the irritating and anxiety-inducing aspects by making sure everyone — that includes you — gets good sleep before a trip and that you all head out to the airport with loads (and loads) of time to spare.

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Preparation
Even experienced travelers sometimes forget how much the airlines have cut back on services and amenities. So don’t expect your airline to feed your kids or entertain them with an in-flight movie, a coloring book or an activity kit. Arrive at the airport with everything your family might need for a full day on the road, even if your scheduled trip is only a few hours.

Issue each kid a carry-on bag filled with a small pillow and light blanket, a change of clothes, some sandwiches, snacks, books, toys and other quiet and entertaining items. Portable music and DVD players are great, but make sure everything is charged up and that you have extra batteries and enough headphones (perhaps with splitters for sharing) for everyone.

Perspiration
At the airport and on the airplane, you’ll need to keep an eye on your kids and keep them from running around the gate area or up and down the airplane aisle. Don’t fall asleep or pretend to fall asleep, and don't use that as an excuse to not notice your kids kicking seatbacks, slamming tray tables or drawing — with permanent marker — on the shiny bald head of the guy sleeping in the row ahead of you — even if he has asked for it by pushing his seat all the way back and snoring loudly. You may feel as if you’ve done your heavy lifting for the day by getting everyone out the door and to the airport, but to avoid the boot you need to stay alert and in control of your kids.

Participation
In the case of the (most recent) unruly family kicked off a Southwest flight, the mother claimed the kids were “out of control, restless, and excited” in part because it was their first airplane trip. How sad that, instead of being fun and magical, their first adventure with air travel was filled with yelling adults, irritated flight attendants, angry passengers and a police escort. (That should be an experience reserved for much later in life.)

Luckily, not all the adults around these kids were angry and irritated. Pat McElroy, the guy who stuffed paper napkins in his ears so he didn’t have to listen to all the commotion, told me there was at least one passenger who made a special effort to go over and talk to one of the “unruly” kids who seemed not just excited but somewhat afraid of flying. “This guy just started talking to the kid in a calm voice and the kid started settling down.”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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