Coping with air tantrums

Katy Donaldson, Helena Sherman, Caleb Sherman
Katy Donaldson of Lafayette, Calif. comforts her children Helena Sherman, 3, and Caleb Sherman, 1, as a line for pasengers waiting to board planes stretches out to the street at the Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

How do you avoid becoming the family that got kicked off an airplane after their crying 3-year-old refused to take her seat?

Experts say rewarding kids for cooperation, distracting them with simple games and telling them in advance what's going to happen can help. But at the end of the day, you may just have to take control, restrain the child, and comply with the rules.

The family, Julie and Gerry Kulesza and their daughter Elly, were headed home to Boston on Jan. 14 from Fort Myers, Fla., when they were told they had to leave the plane because Elly wouldn't get in her seat.

FAA rules require children age 2 and older to have their own seats with buckled seat belts before takeoff. The airline, Air Tran, said the flight had already been delayed 15 minutes when the family was told to disembark. Air Tran reimbursed the family the cost of their tickets and offered them three roundtrip tickets anywhere the airline flies as compensation.

Here are four tips for getting children to behave on airplanes.

Bring the child's car seat along. The Federal Aviation Administration says children are safest on planes when strapped into their car seats, and "young kids are often more comfortable in a familiar seat," said Eileen Ogintz whose columns appear online at

Seeing their own car seat on the plane may also make them more willing to climb in and buckle up, just like they do in the family car.

Bring small items you can use as entertainment, distraction and rewards.

"We'll stop in the magazine store and get one of those silly little books where the kids get a magic pen," said Pauline Frommer, the travel guidebook writer and daughter of travel guru Arthur Frommer. In addition, she buys gum as a special treat for her daughters to have in flight, and brings pipe cleaners along to play with.

Holly Hughes, author of "500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up," suggests reading a story or even strapping a doll in the seat belt first. "Everyone around you is anxious and kids are likely to pick up on that anxiety," she said. "Distraction is a big thing."

Michele Perry, director of communications for TripAdvisor and mother of a 3-year-old, says if toys don't work, "I have a Plan B, which I'm not proud of but it works: A lollipop."

If the child is old enough to understand, explain in advance what's going to happen and stress the importance of following the rules. "Explain that the pilot and flight attendants need their help when preparing for take off," Ogintz said.

"The whole idea is the preparation before. Explain what's going to happen and make it something to look forward to," said Nancy Shankman. Her grown son, Peter Shankman, began traveling with his family from a very young age; today he runs, a Web site that allows people to choose their seat mates before boarding.

Finally, if rewards, explanations and distraction don't work, you may have to calmly say, "These are the rules, you have no choice," and restrain the child.

"I do feel that preparation for any kind of adventure is important," said Nancy Shankman, "but if that didn't work, I would have just strapped the kid in the seat."

Peter Shankman said that the opinion of about half of the moms weighing in on the subject on the AirTroductions Web site was, "'We would have had that kid down.' They blamed the parents." The other half felt badly for the parents, he said.

"A lot of this comes down to parenting," Perry said. At the end of the day, "I know I can get my daughter buckled in that seat."

Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the travel agency, said parents need to realize that, "in the post-9/11 world, there's no room for error on airplanes. Unruly passengers, regardless of who they are, whether it's an elderly person or a young child, can be grounds for turning the plane around and letting them off. ... If ever there were a place where you need to make sure your children were behaving, this is the place."