IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Babies on planes: Should they be separate?

There’s nothing so radically new about seating the kids separately from the adults. After all, who hasn’t been banished to the kid’s table at big family dinners? It’s not a bad place to be.
/ Source:

There’s nothing so radically new about seating the kids separately from the adults. After all, who hasn’t been banished to the kid’s table at big family dinners? It’s not a bad place to be.

There you are, seated with like-minded individuals, all of whom share your passion for cheerio-flinging, drool-gurgling, and sippy-cup-spilling. Meanwhile, the adults are free to talk about mortgage rates. Everybody wins.

So it's difficult to see why this concept should be so hard to apply to airline seating. Give 'em their very own section of the plane. It worked for smokers back in the day. I’m not proposing a ban on children altogether — but the thought sure did cross my mind on a recent flight to Atlanta.

The initial few taps to the back of my seat were easy to ignore. Hey, some people are fidgety on planes. But then the taps escalated into rapid-fire kicks. Even then, I still didn’t turn around immediately. Not until the woman to my left gave me a look confirming that, yes, this was excessive.

A nightmare flight
So I turned around. There were two of them. Twins. Boys. About eight years old. The woman seated next to them was gazing out the window, completely oblivious, trying to tune them out. At first glance, I wasn’t even sure she was their mother. Oh, but she was. I was able to figure that one out when, after they continued to kick, and scream, and fight, she asked them, “Did you take your pills today?”

Oh, brother. My seatmate and I glanced at each other to make sure we’d both just heard the same thing. “We can’t swallow those big pills,” one of them whined. By the end of the flight, my seatmate and I were able to string together their entire life story. They were being escorted south to live with their Aunt Freda because the mother could no longer deal with them. And, after three hours, neither could I nor my seatmate.

So what should we have done?

“I would ask the flight attendant to politely ask the parent to keep their child from kicking the seat,” said Eileen Ogintz, family travel expert and founder of

“I hear people complain that parents aren’t controlling their kids but more often, it is a situation where a parent is doing all they can and a child — especially a toddler — won’t be consoled. In that case, I would hope passengers would be sympathetic,” said Ogintz. “If there is an extenuating circumstance — say the child has ADD or is autistic — the parent should explain. I know it’s tough for the other passengers, but we’re talking about a public space.”

Most people in favor: poll
What about reserving some of that public space especially for children and parents? put it to the people in a reader poll. Fully 91 percent voted that this was a good idea (although some admitted that they airlines would never consent to such a plan); only a measly 9 percent were thumbs-down. (You can vote in the poll here and Airfarewatchdog will be sharing the results with the airlines, for all the good it will probably do.)

But how hard can it be? Flights are already curtained off into business class, coach, first, economy plus, and so on. What’s one more curtain?

It isn’t just child-hating, curmudgeonly single folks that stand to benefit from such a divide. Many parents, such as Jesse Calistar of, take issue with the choice of programming featured on in-flight entertainment. He cites films like “Shooter” and “300,” both rated 'R' for violence, that were visible to all passengers during the flights that screened them, as being far too graphic for children.

Other parents who participated in the poll agree, and many said they’d prefer to sit with other parents and children just so to avoid the scorn of other passengers should their child cry, or need to get up for the bathroom repeatedly.

Whatever their reasons, it’s clearly something that passengers want, but the airlines aren’t quite scrambling to provide. (“Hey,” we can hear airline executives grumbling, “passengers would also like free booze on all flights, but they’re not getting that either.”)

Airlines' reactions to the idea
Airfarewatchdog e-mailed and called several airlines’ public relations offices, asking if they had ever considered baby-and-parent sections. A Delta spokesperson replied: “Our flight attendants would (and do) make every effort to accommodate a passenger's request to move to another seat if one is available.”

Continental said it is “not currently considering a child-and-parent-only section. Passengers requesting to be moved are able to do so, providing there is an open seat available” — which, of course, there seldom is these days. “Our in-flight employees are trained to handle these types of situations as part of our customer service training.”

In an e-mail message,’s Ogintz said she had heard rumors that “Southwest is experimenting with family sections on planes,” but Airfarewatchdog's repeated attempts to confirm this with Southwest’s PR office were futile.

Perhaps the most straightforward input we received from the airline industry was provided by David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, who opined that children-only sections would be “logistically difficult” to implement. (What would happen if a passenger reserved an adults-only seat and for whatever reason landed in the middle of Playland? What a can of worms that would open.)

Practical steps
So what can passengers do if a wailing or rambunctious child sits near them? Here are some tips:

  • Airfarewatchdog staffers never travel without noise canceling or blocking headphones. Some of us prefer the Bose models, others like Shure in-ear headphones. We never leave home without them.
  • Try to sit in the first exit row of planes with two exit rows. Little ones can’t sit in exit rows, so you’ll be sure that no tiny feet will be pummeling your seat back.
  • Take very early morning flights (5 a.m. or 6 a.m., if they’re available). Parents can rarely manage to dress, feed, wash, and otherwise organize infants and toddlers in time to catch flights that early in the day.
  • Speak up. Talk to the guardian of the offending child, politely but firmly. Admittedly, this doesn’t always work. Ask a flight attendant speak to the parent, or to reseat you. If the situation is really horrendous and only business or first class is available, ask to be upgraded.
  • If all else fails, just grimace and bear it. Or start wailing, kicking and screaming yourself.