Nursery at 25,000 Feet

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

If you’re like me, then you’ve been victimized by certain inevitable truths about flying. Perhaps the most apparent is that no matter the flight, the airline or the route, you will be assigned a seat immediately in front of, behind or next to a screaming baby. The longer the flight, the louder the baby.

Another inevitability is the “unaccompanied minor” who can be just as annoying as the shrieking infant.

Along with screaming babies or unaccompanied minors, some veteran passengers insist that your flight will also seem longer, and you will leave your plane more fatigued. In fact, they postulate the axiom that the shorter the flight, the fewer the children.

There are even some frequent fliers who joke that the only way to travel with children is if they (either the adults or the children, or both) are heavily sedated.


Needless to say, that solution won’t work.

An Airline Problem

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate children. And I don’t believe that children are the problem. The problem rests with the airlines, which seem to ignore the needs of small children and infants--and their parents.

Virtually all flights are endurance tests for passengers. But even the smoothest on-time flight, with comfortable seats and great service, can be ruined if the airlines aren’t prepared for their youngest fliers.

Each week thousands of infants fly on airlines throughout the world. Thousands more are unaccompanied children. As the numbers increase, the problems multiply.

And what do airlines do for parents and their children? Frightfully little.

In the United States if you’re a parent traveling with your child, you’ll be lucky if you board ahead of other passengers. If your child is younger than 2, you’ve really got your hands full. Chances are that you’re boarding the plane replete with your supply of baby bottles, diapers, toys and a generous supply of tissue paper.

During the flight, don’t expect much help from the flight attendants. They’re busy with meal service.

What’s a mother or father to do?

I have a friend, Ann, who knows this problem firsthand. She has two young children and she’s flown with them around the world.

When it comes to checking in, boarding, seating and in-flight service for children, she’s become an expert of sorts.

“U.S. airlines are the worst when it comes to children,” she said. “If you’re a parent traveling with an infant, most of the airlines just don’t care.”

On one domestic flight she asked if she could have an aisle seat near the restroom so she could go there to change her child’s diapers. She was carrying her baby, a folding stroller, a bag full of diaper bags, formula and bottles and a second bag carrying baby food to be used later for used diapers.

The counter agent told her it was no problem. When Ann boarded the crowded plane she found herself in a bulkhead seat, with no under-seat storage, next to three other single parents with babies!

“The mothers all looked at each other and laughed,” she said. “We had all been there before.”

On another flight she called the airline ahead of time and asked if it provided special child seats (FAA-approved car-type seats for small children and infants). The airline said it did. She reserved one. When she arrived for the flight the seat was indeed waiting for her at the check-in counter. But no one from the airline would help her carry it to the plane.

“Mothers with kids are simply not treated well when they fly,” she said. “Ask a stewardess to warm a bottle? Forget it.”

Indeed, there is no reason why the U.S. airlines that fly long-haul routes--United, TWA, Pan Am--can’t devise a better way to handle babies and small children.

Some airlines--and airports--at least are trying.

For years Western Airlines (now Delta) had a special children’s lounge at the Salt Lake City airport.

Generally, however, you’ll find that most airport and airline child-care facilities are overseas.

On one Japan Airlines flight Ann was almost in shock. “When I got to the airport in Tokyo the airline was totally prepared for me, as well as other mothers traveling with their children. Ground personnel came to the counter and helped me all the way to the gate.

“Then when I got on the plane, one of the stewardesses handed me a shopping bag full of baby food, extra diapers, washcloths and airsickness bags for disposing of the dirty diapers. And I was flying in coach.”

Other passengers report similar experiences on Singapore, Thai and Cathay Pacific. In fact, most Asian carriers have installed fold-out basinets in front of the bulkhead seats to let parents sit more comfortably--and babies rest more comfortably--during long flights. (No American airline offers this.)

Last summer Delta started a major promotional campaign, proclaiming itself the “airline for kids.” Was it because Delta just loves children? Not exactly. Children traveling alone have become a significant source of revenue for airlines.

Changing Demographics

Airlines such as Delta know that part of the changing demographics in America is the growth in the number of single parents, as well as the increased mobility of the population. In the last few years the number of divorced parents living in different cities has zoomed. As a result, the number of children of divorced parents who are frequent fliers has increased proportionately.

Delta has devised specific guidelines for its personnel who handle children traveling alone, as well as a specific guide for parents considering sending their children on flights without them.

On Delta a child may travel alone at age 5 or older. Unaccompanied children pay the full applicable adult fare. And Delta will only accept the child if there are no weather conditions that might prevent the flight from landing at the destination airport.

On most domestic airlines, including Delta, children younger than 2 traveling with an adult fly free. But they must sit in the adult’s lap unless there are empty seats on the flight. Children 2 through 11 who are accompanied by an adult are usually given a discount.

For a standard coach fare it’s normally 25% off. On international flights, many carriers require parents to pay 10% of the adult fare for children younger than 2.

The guide offers hints for parents preparing their children to fly. Delta offers special meals for children. All meals are free of monosodium glutamate and feature all-beef hot dogs, cheeseburgers and candy bars. On snack flights, Delta gives children a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich. These meals must be ordered in advance.

Some of the advice in the Delta children’s guide seems obvious: “We suggest that your child bring along a favorite toy, game or book.” And some of the advice is common sense: “It is a good idea to put your child’s name on any item (including coats and jackets) that he brings on board with him.”

And, finally, some absolutely necessary advice: “Dress your child in comfortable play clothes--simple, loose-fitting garments that he can nap and lounge in comfortably and manage easily when he uses the lavatory.”

There is a strictly enforced FAA regulation that limits the number of small pets that can be carried in an aircraft to one per cabin. But there is no FAA regulation that limits the number of unaccompanied minors that can be carried on any one flight.

I’ve received numerous letters from flight attendants who complain they have been confronted with this problem. It should be addressed for reasons of safety as well as service.

Getting Revenge

Every once in a while, mothers like Ann get their revenge. Not long ago she was flying with her 2-year-old son on a flight between Los Angeles and Dallas. She had bought him a separate ticket. But when she got to the check-in counter she was told the flight was full and the airline would not seat her with her son.

“I lifted my kid up to the counter and showed the agent he was only 2 years old,” Ann said. “The agent could not have cared less.”

Ann was seated in 18-C, a coach aisle seat. Her son was assigned 27-B, a center seat.

On the way to the gate, Ann thought quickly. Passing an ice cream store, she ducked in and bought her child a large double-dip strawberry cone.

When the flight was boarded, she gave him his boarding pass and sent him to his seat. “Then I went to my seat, and just waited. Within a minute I had a very nervous businessman begging to change seats with me.”