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Wanted: Child-free flights and no wind chimes

Everyone has their idea of a perfect world. For me, it would include a ban on wind chimes. My friend Camille would be happy if “airlines would offer child-free flights.”
A mother and her daughter walk past a mo
Children on airplanes can be stressful for kids, parents, travelers, flight crews and everyone else involved. Afp / AFP/Getty Images

Everyone has their idea of a perfect world. For me, it would include a ban on wind chimes. My friend Camille would be happy if “airlines would offer child-free flights.”

I know I’m not likely to get much of a buy-in on a world without wind chimes. And no airline seems likely to roll out a schedule of child-free flights anytime soon.  In fact, now that schools are starting to let out for spring vacation, airplanes will be filling up with wound-up kids and stressed-out parents on their way to grandma’s house, Disney World, and other magical, excitement-inducing destinations.

Of course, anyone who buys a ticket has a right to a seat on an airplane. But it’s invariably those days when you’re looking forward to a little quiet time or shut-eye on a flight that at least one otherwise angelic kid (rarely yours; most often someone else’s) will decide to spend the entire trip crying, whining, rolling on the floor or kicking the back of your seat.  Many parents try to avoid this situation by toting carry-on bags chock-full of snacks, books, games, maps, brand new toys and other distracting items. Others advise taking overnight flights or scheduling travel to coincide with a child’s naptime. And a few parents (who prefer that I not use their names) swear by repeated pre-flight laps around the carpeted areas of the airport and a dose of a certain children’s medication that has “drowsiness” as a side-effect.  One mother I met recently says when traveling with her kids she always makes sure to “have some surprises in my bag and many varieties of gum.” And, she says, “I keep them well-fed and watered and let them know before we set out how I expect them to behave.”

Explaining to a child what to expect when they travel and what is expected of them along the way is a great idea. But when you’re away from home, it’s never easy to know just what to expect. In mid-January, for example, an AirTran flight from Florida to Massachusetts was unexpectedly delayed while the parents of a three-year old girl tried in vain to get their child seated and buckled up for takeoff. Finally, citing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rule that everyone over age two must be buckled up in their own seat for takeoff, the airline asked the family to step off the plane so that everyone who was seated and buckled up could get on with their trip.

Looking back at the flurry of media stories, articles and blog postings about the incident, some interesting themes pop up: while a few people expressed empathy for the parents, pretty much everyone cheered the airline for refusing to delay the flight for one cranky passenger. In fact, according to Judy Graham-Weaver, AirTran Airways Manager of Public Relations, the airline itself has gotten more than 9,000 e-mails about the incident and they “overwhelmingly (about 95 percent) support the airline’s actions in the story.”

Graham-Weaver adds that while an airplane’s flight crew has discretion about what to do for unruly passengers, the Massachusetts-bound family was removed from the flight not because their daughter was having a tantrum (although plenty of people would have applauded that action), but because the plane could not be moved with the child out of her seat. “The flight took a delay of 15 minutes, but in fairness to the other 112 passengers on board we had to ask them [the family] to depart the plane in order to move it.” Still, many travelers see this incident as a victory for those who would rather not fly with unruly passengers on board, no matter what age they are. And some frequent fliers say they’ll seek out Air Tran flights specifically because they feel the airline’s action holds passengers responsible for their in-flight behavior.

I doubt we’ll see a wave of cranky, seat-kicking kids and their parents being escorted off flights in the near future, but maybe the whole issue could be avoided if U.S. airlines added an amenity offered by Bahrain’s Gulf Air. As a service to families traveling with children “and those passengers who aren’t,” the airline provides a Sky Nanny service both on the airplane and in the pre-boarding lounge. On all wide-bodied aircraft that fly the airline’s long haul routes, specially trained Sky Nannies give parents “that much needed break during a long flight and generally provide a watchful eye on the little ones.” The Sky Nannies help out with meals and drinks for the kids and hand out crayons, activity packs and practical advice on everything from how to keep kids entertained on a long flight to how to help clear a toddler’s ears to avoid pain from the change in air pressure.

With all the other recent service cutbacks we’ve seen on U.S. airlines, it is doubtful we’ll get Sky Nannies here anytime soon, even if we do join forces and all threaten to hold our breath until we turn blue. But Thea and Ian Derby, already veteran travelers at age 7 and 8 respectively, don’t think Sky Nannies are necessary. Their advice for stress-free flying includes bringing along headphone adapters so there’s no need to fight over the DVD or MP3 player, buying new books at the airport and having an adult on hand who’s good at telling stories. And, says Thea, sometimes it’s just good idea to “close your eyes and sleep or daydream.”