Wailing babies spawn a new revenue stream for airlines
Would you pay more to fly in a child-free zone? Many do, writes David Fickling
Andy Curr says her worst ever in-flight experience was brought on her by her own offspring.
Curr, a web designer from Sydney, was travelling from London to Bangkok about three years ago when her second-youngest daughter, then 20 months, "screamed all the way," she said.
The wailing got her older children going, too.
"Once one goes off, they all start," said 41-year-old Curr.
Balancing the needs of customers wanting a peaceful trip with those of harried parents has become a major challenge for airlines trying to cater to both groups. Singapore Airlines' budget carrier Scoot unveiled a child-free zone for passengers prepared to pay extra, following AirAsia and Malaysian Airline systems, which also segregate kids.
Seat-kicking and unruly children came ahead of drunken passengers, rude cabin crew, and lecherous neighbours as on-board annoyances in a July survey by British financial services comparison website Gocompare. Respondents said they'd be prepared to add €60 to the cost of a return flight if they could sit in a child-free zone.
"People love their own kids, but they might not necessarily love someone else's to the same extent," said Scoot chief executive officer Campbell Wilson. "Allowing someone the option of travelling with the assurance of not having young children around is simply one of the many choices you have."
Scoot charges extra for 41 economy-class seats directly behind business class with three inches of extra legroom, where children under 12 aren't allowed.
There was "some very robust debate" in the office about the merits of the service, said Wilson, who doesn't have children. Several colleagues who are parents favoured a play area instead, he said. Carriers who've introduced child-free zones say they haven't received significant negative feedback.
"Getting choice means you are satisfying both sets of people," Azran Osman Rani, chief executive of AirAsia. "Even families with kids are positive because now they are in the other zone and they feel less guilty."
CNN correspondent Richard Quest encouraged followers on his Twitter feed to echo his call to "ban babies in business class".
Some airlines are responding. Malaysian Airline introduced a largely child-free upper deck on its A380 aircraft when they entered service two years ago. The carrier said it will only seat families in the 70 upper-deck economy seats if there's no more room on the lower level.
"You're all in one tin can, so it's a little bit difficult to keep everyone happy," said Marcus Osborne, a father of three and a partner at branding consultants FusionBrand in Kuala Lumpur.
"If I had the option to sit in an area where there were no kids, I would probably jump at the chance."
Other carriers are trying to be more accommodating. From October, Japan Airlines will reserve the four rear economy seats on some routes for women who want to breastfeed or apply make-up.
Etihad has hired consultants from Norland College, a UK childcare training centre, to teach child psychology and sociology to about 500 cabin crew designated as 'flying nannies' on the Middle-East carrier's long-haul flights, a free service available in all classes.
The orange-aproned nannies seek to make travelling easier for parents by serving children's meals early in the flight and offering infant activities ranging from magic tricks to origami and sock puppets.
Chief executive James Hogan introduced a similar program in 2003 while CEO of Bahrain's Gulf Air.
"We have received fantastic feedback from guests from right around the world," said Aubrey Tiedt, who is Etihad Airways vice president for guest services.
The introduction of child-free zones risks backfiring if it alienates parents and will probably only work for budget airlines, said Andrew Wong, regional director for Europe and Australia at TripAdvisor's flights unit.
"It's a bit of a tricky question for full-service carriers," he said. "You don't really want to vilify parents travelling with kids - after all, they're people just like you and me."
Segregating an aircraft cabin used to be common in the days of smoking sections, which have been all but eradicated from global commercial aviation in the past decade. Like smoke, a child's screams waft over several rows, so Scoot and AirAsia separate their child-free zones from the rest of the cabin with toilet blocks and Malaysian puts them on a separate floor.
A child's scream can be as loud as 105 decibels, louder than a chainsaw or subway train, according to the American Tinnitus Association. People exposed to sounds above 85 decibels should wear earplugs, according to the group.
Still, branding children as the biggest source of in-flight annoyance isn't fair, given the behaviour of some adults on flights, said Curr, the Sydney web designer. She's started a blog about travelling with her four children - aged three to 14 - on her website, flyingwithbaby.com, which advises "getting there without going insane."
"You can't choose who you fly with," she said. "Adults are usually the worst-behaved, and drunk sometimes."