Child-free or Child-friendly?

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We’ve all been there. Travelling with kids I mean. And not always necessarily yours. But when they’re yours, sometimes there’s a price to pay. And it involves daggers. Not the real ones. Dagger eyes. Right, maybe I should stop talking in bursts. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Okay, I’ll stop.

Something’s been bothering me for a while. The source of my concern was a not-so-recent article which spoke about certain low-cost airlines offering passengers an opportunity to pay a slightly handsome overhead charge, to obtain seats in a child-free zone. In other words, as far away as possible from kids under the age of 12. Whilst, I’m really curious as to the complex mathematical calculations that helped them ascertain that age 12 is when kids start to stop making a ruckus on flights, I’m even more curious to see passengers falling for what can only be described as a “marketing ploy”.

Yes, I know. To put it bluntly, flying with kids, especially the younger ones, can be a stressful affair. Now, I love my little one, but there have been times, where I’ve felt that I’d pay extra to get away from him on a flight. Especially when I’ve had people “virtually stab me with their dagger eyes”. Needless to say, good parenting sense prevailed and I didn’t. Also partially due to the fact that my wife would probably have filed for divorce soon after we landed. I digress.

So yes, this news evoked kind of a mixed reaction from me. As a sane person, I can understand the reasoning behind certain airlines wanting to “ban” children from certain sections. Yes, at times, they can be raucously screaming, kicking on the back of your seat and constantly whining from popping ears. But then again, they’re only human. As a father of a 20 month old, I do both pity and envy the baby-free travellers, especially on long-haul flights. Envy because I’m usually walking up and down the aisles chasing the little monkey. Pity because they have to deal with the strong lungs of a wailing kid, who isn’t theirs. But, I’m still not sold on this "child-free cabin” business. Here are two probable reasons as to why most commercial airlines will never implement this.

Sound Travels

It’s not rocket science. Because of the way planes are designed, a few curtains are not going to give anyone the “peace of ear” that they’re hoping for. It’s true that they can escape from being right beside one of the kids, but what about the people who have paid for the upgrade, but are confined to the last seats of this privileged cabin? Bear in mind that the normal economy class starts right behind these row of seats, and the only protection they have are some partition curtains, and sometimes the bathroom. So unless you are travelling in one of those two-deck new A380 planes and the “kid-free” section is up stairs, you’re still going to hear the kids.

Alienating families

Yes, most kids are a pain when flying. But if the airlines start to go ahead and segregate seats based on whether you’ve procreated or not, it would just be another case of discrimination. “Baby apartheid”  as one magazine jokingly called it. I can understand if they’d rather not have kids in Business and First class sections, but down in Economy (or Coach), where most families fly, it has the potential to back-fire and alienate families. You know why? Because the person who’d most rather sit in the “quiet-zone” would be the child’s parents. And unless they let the kids travel unaccompanied, and let us (as in the parents) sit in the “new zone”, we will fight against the airlines wanting to implement this. (yes, we can be bribed)

So yes, whilst there are logistical and social implications which may prevent the kids-free zone from taking off, as a parent I can completely understand that the airlines are forced to balance the needs of customers wanting to take a peaceful trip with those of distressed parents. In a recent survey by the British comparison website, GoCompare, guess what topped the list of “Things that annoy you during a flight”? Yes, unruly kids and seat-kicking by these lovely little angels. And they came well-ahead of rude cabin crew, inebriated passengers and lecherous neighbours.

Image courtesy flipkey.com

I’ve probably bought my parents their share of dagger eyes too, when I was a little kid, just as my son’s antics sometimes make fellow passengers roll their eyes in disapproval. But wait a minute, we’ve all been there. I mean, being kids. Of course back when we were growing up (oh, that makes me sound really old) air travel was just starting to take off (forgive the bad pun:)). The thing that bugs me is how inconsiderate fellow travellers can be. And it’s not just them, even the cabin crew can be quite indelicate when a parent is desperately trying to pacify a crying young one. And the rolling of the eyes along with the loud “tut-tut” noises clearly indicate what they think of your parenting skills. But then again, anyone who’s travelled with kids know that whilst sometimes unruly kids can be put down to poor parenting, most times babies and toddlers are just too overwhelmed by the whole affair of flying, with the unexpected ear-popping, roller-coaster-like air pockets and claustrophobia-inducing cabins. When I say kids, I mean infants and toddlers. If they’re over the age of five, and still create a ruckus whilst flying without having any underlying medical conditions, then yes, the parents need to be given a whack.With most airlines having in-flight entertainment systems, you should be able to find something to keep them busy.

As a parent, whilst I’m against this whole “banning” business, I’m all for airlines implementing baby/toddler - friendly zones within the aircraft. Of course, this too could be a logistical nightmare, but at least it’s mostly a win-win for all. If you’re a parent and travelling with your toddler(s), wouldn’t it help if your aircraft had a section with sort of a mini play area for kids? On an average, less than 15% of the total number of passengers in an aircraft are accompanied by babies or toddlers. So that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

Alternatively, instead of creating child-free zones, couldn’t you just reserve say four rows towards to the back to the plane for just families travelling with kids? And maybe get them to pay a little less, since it is quite obvious that it’s going to be a far from relaxing flight for them. This way, all the parents are kind of stuck together and at least free from the rolling eyes and general disapproval. But then again, all it takes is one whining kid, for the rest of them to follow suit.

Okay, so the above two points aren’t really “change-the-way-you-travel” kind of suggestions. However, there is a particular airline company who seem to be taking a step in the right direction. And no, they’re not discriminating anyone. Rather, they are recruiting, training and deploying a dedicated “Flying Nanny” program on some of their long-haul flights. These “Life-savers” (yes, that’s what they should be called) will be trained in child psychology and sociology and will aim to make air travel a lot easier for parents who have their kids in tow. They’ll be there to provide that extra bit of help and support to help keep kids entertained with a variety of activities such as hand puppets, drawing and painting competitions, face-painting and simple magic tricks amongst others. Needless to say, that’ll go a long way in easing the pressure on the parents. And of course, it’s provided free and across the entire flight. Sort of like your new-age Mary Poppins, if you think about it. Now, that’s definitely a lot easier to implement. Other airlines, sit up and take notice.

This “segregation” is not restricted to just air-travel. Certainly, it’s more applicable there, since none of the passengers can get up and walk away. But more and more restaurants, theatres and other social places are starting to deny entry to families with young kids. And the sad fact is, I can’t really say that they’re wrong. I mean, would they be in the wrong, if they asked a tantrum-throwing adult patron to leave the premises? Hardly so! I suppose they’re just merely extending it to everyone, kids included. Then again, I reckon there’s a cultural shift, so to speak. Today, having a kid is no longer “the norm”, but more of a choice. Similarly, there is the choice of whether to bring your kids with you or not (I’m not talking about travel here, rather more about the other aspects such as restaurants and theatres). As a result, people are probably a little less tolerant towards children than the previous generations were.

I'd like to know what you think about this "child-free zone" business - not just in the air, but down on land too. Do leave your comments below