Monday 11 December 2017

Is this the start of airline apartheid?

OK, so some children on flights can be annoying but surely they're not the worst offenders. . .

Flying can be trying: Hazel Gaynor pictured at home with children Max (five) and Sam (three).
Flying can be trying: Hazel Gaynor pictured at home with children Max (five) and Sam (three).

Hazel Gaynor

It is 7.50am and I'm standing in the queue for my Ryanair flight from Dublin to Leeds.

I'm travelling with my two young children who are starting to get restless. I can't really blame them -- we've been up since 5.15am and have already been standing in the queue for 40 minutes.

They start pushing each other. The three-year-old bumps repeatedly into the bag of the passenger in front. They are both starting to whine, frequently and loudly. Everyone's tired and fed up.

The people in the queue around us are definitely starting to tire of my children's fidgeting but what can I do? We should be at our destination by now and I've run out of raisins and things to 'I spy'.

Just behind me is a group of lads who are clearly suffering from the night before's over-indulgence. They are loud, obnoxious, and absolutely stink of alcohol. I sigh and hope, hope, hope they don't sit near me on the plane. They do.

I resign myself to a miserable 45 minutes of listening to their foul language and fending off their drunken attempts to chat me up while breathing in their alcohol fumes.

A fairly typical scenario on most flights -- my children are an irritation to some people; other people are an irritation to me.

Yet, according to the results of a recent survey among business travellers, it is the kids who are the biggest annoyance by far. The survey asked 1,000 business class travellers about their travel niggles in advance of the Business Travel and Meetings trade show which took place in London in February.

Three-quarters of respondents stated that children drive them crazy when they're travelling in business class and over half want a family-only section on flights where, "screaming children and their parents could be separated from business class passengers".

Having paid extra for the privileges afforded to those in business class, they are frustrated that their peace and comfort should be spoilt by fidgeting, chatting, crying youngsters who, quite frankly, should know better. Right?

So are the business travellers justified in their opinion? Is the issue of annoying children on flights just an unavoidable reality of public travel, or is it a problem which really needs a solution? UK-based business travel journalist Dave Richardson thinks so.

"I definitely think introducing an adults-only cabin or service is a good idea and it would work well on high-traffic routes so that families could travel on other services.

"On long-haul routes I might look to more innovative airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, Emirates or Etihad to consider taking this on board. Many airlines will continue to operate the B747 far into the future, so making the upper deck adults-only should not represent a huge logistical problem."

So, the proposed options are to: 1) introduce child-free flights (with families excluded from those services), or 2) introduce child-free zones (with all the hassled parents and their annoying, seat-kicking, hair-pulling offspring corralled into a separate section, presumably at the back of the plane).

Many parents don't understand why children are being singled out as an in-flight annoyance. As one mother explained to me: "The worst thing that happened to me was an endlessly whinging vegan for 11 hours moaning that her meals weren't on board."


Other parents point out, "When you choose to fly you have to be well aware of the fact that there may well be children on board. It is public transportation, after all."

Another parent can see both sides. "The only time I fly business class is when I am travelling with work, and generally on an overnight flight -- with the expectation that I will be in the office bright and early the next morning. Having said this, I have been more disturbed by snoring middle-aged businessmen than small children on occasion!"

The debate, although contentious, is certainly nothing new. An article on this very issue appeared in 'The Economist' back in 1998, suggesting that a solution was needed to help those passengers who find children irksome.

"All airlines, trains and restaurants should create child-free zones. Put all those children at the back of the plane and parents might make more effort to minimise their noise pollution. And instead of letting children pay less and babies go free, they should be charged (or taxed) more than adults, with the revenues used to subsidise seats immediately in front of the war-zone." Indeed!

The article went on to say, "Well, yes, it is a bit intolerant -- but why shouldn't parents be treated as badly as smokers?"

The concept that annoying children can actually damage your health might sound a little extreme, but it proved to be true with a 67-year-old American woman, Jean Barnard.

She successfully sued Qantas in July 2010 for being deafened by the screams of a boy during take-off.

So what do the airlines think? A spokesperson for BA said: "As an airline that flies 32 million customers a year, British Airways does its best to help out families travelling with children to make sure their journey is as smooth as possible."

If I'm honest, when you're stuck on a plane at 30,000ft there are few things more annoying than a bored kid who just won't stop kicking the back of your chair. I can say this; I'm a parent. But surely the point of this debate is that there are also many other annoyances we are forced to tolerate.

What about the passengers with, 'hygiene issues' or those whose body mass exceeds the proportions of the standard issue airline seat.

Also, what would the business class travellers have the airlines do with all the other irritating passengers? If airlines do go ahead with family segregation, what next? Will we see drunken men heading off on stag weekends segregated into an 'alcohol zone'? The mind boggles.

Maybe the business travellers involved in this survey should consider the reasons why children scream, or are badly behaved. Some scream because their ears are hurting them (and if you've ever flown with a bad cold you will know that pain). Others fuss, fidget or cry simply because they are tired, bored or over-excited. Sometimes no end of distractions or pacing the cabin can ease their discomfort.


Comments on the website clearly highlight the diversity of opinion on this matter. As one traveller puts it: "When you buy a seat on a flight, whatever the class, it gives you no rights other than to be transported along with your fellow human beings, no matter how unpleasant that experience might be for you. If you really do not like it, buy a plane."

Another disagrees entirely. "Any person, no matter what his/her age, should not be allowed to wilfully ruin another's experience of anything, be that a flight, a meal, or a movie."

Perhaps another traveller's comment sums up the real issue here.

"Obnoxious children are not welcome anywhere -- nor are obnoxious adults. The difference being, in the case of kids, their behaviour should be controlled by accompanying parents."

Like it or not, child-free flights will quite probably become a reality in the not too distant future. A good idea or the start of passenger apartheid? Perhaps we should leave the last word on this issue to the children themselves and six-year-old Jessica Morley in particular, who composed the following reply to that intolerant man from 'The Economist':

"Sir, you are wrong when you say that children are like cigarettes or mobile phones. No one has to smoke or use a mobile phone, but everyone has to be a child and you were once one too. You need children to pay for the pensions of miserable old people like you. Now pick on someone your own size."

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