Kids on a plane.No four words incite more acrimonious debate among air travelers. Not "your flight is delayed." Not "here's a new fee." Not even "snakes on a plane."
On one side, you have childless customers who just want a little civility while they're locked inside a pressurized aluminum tube. And on the other, parents who believe airlines should accommodate anyone, anytime - particularly their beloved offspring.
Talk about oil and water. Or maybe, nitroglycerin.
Children and planes can be a combustible mix. Question is, what to do about the littlest air travelers?
Here are five ways we might approach the kids-on-a-plane problem - and what you can do to become part of the solution:1. Kids-only sections"I would gladly pay an extra $20 each way to avoid the noise and headaches," says Randy Gillespie, a travel agent from Collingswood, N.J., adding that such an option should be built into the fare rather than offered as an optional add-on. Kids-only sections have been tried on an informal basis in the past, but never quite caught on. Families couldn't be forced into one section of a plane any more than kids could be excluded from, say, first class. But you can still find your own "kid-free" section on a plane. On domestic flights, children may not sit in exit rows, and they're unlikely to make an appearance in business- and first-class sections, where seats are super-expensive.
2. Ban 'em"I don't know whether it would be practical to have child-free flights," says Bill Armstrong, an information technology consultant from Calgary. "But certainly, I am on the list of people who would pay a little extra for that." Armstrong recently endured a nine-hour flight with a child that "had developed a uniquely annoying scream" that didn't stop and could be heard even while Armstrong wore headphones.
But is getting rid of all children a viable solution? Probably not. If you suspect you'll have a problem with an unruly child sitting next to you - and this is especially true if it's your own child - then speak up before the cabin doors close. A crew member might be able to move you to a different section. Or a different flight.
3. No, get rid of the adults!In fairness, I can't raise the issue of banning kids without handing the mic to angry parents, who think annoying adults should be banned, too. So here it goes.
"Are there really more disruptive kids on planes than obnoxious adults?" asks Hayley Schultz, who travels with her three kids, ages 5, 7 and 9, and notes that they sit in their seats, read books and watch TV without incident.
Good point. If you want to see annoying adults, just take a red-eye flight from Las Vegas, where half the unlucky passengers are trying to drown their sorrows one mini-bottle of cheap whiskey at a time.
4. Encourage responsible parentingMany in-flight altercations are a result of negligent parenting, to hear some passengers talk about it. A 5-year-old on a flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Albany, N.Y, recently kicked Mauranna Sherman, an administrative assistant from Forest, Va., repeatedly. When she turned around, the boy's mother just shrugged. "Mom had no bag of toys or books or techie stuff" to distract her son, she remembered. Airlines bear some responsibility in helping adults prepare for a flight with their offspring, and their Web sites could do a far better job of telling new parents what to expect on a flight. But ultimately, of course, it's the parents' job to make sure they've packed enough food and entertainment for the flight.
5. Pass new seat belt laws"I would like to see kids more secure during flight," says Nancy Hatten, a flight attendant who lives in Farmington, Minn. "Parents of children under 2 should be required to purchase a passenger seat for the child and then keep them buckled in a child car seat during flight." That would require parents to buy a seat for their kids, which they currently don't. But it would almost certainly make air travel safer and saner for everyone else. Toddlers strapped in a car seat usually come to terms with their circumstances and know that a stroll down the aisle to visit the pilot is not possible.
Even though I have three children, I still can't quite bring myself to siding with many parents, who seem to feel as if their kids should be able to fly anywhere, anytime and behave in any way they want to.
My offspring are capable of some of the most annoying behavior ever. After all, I'm their father. So when a flight attendant tells me my kids are out of line, I'm the first to agree.
But ban kids outright? I used to like the idea, at least in theory, but now see eye-to-eye with readers like Lisa Hirsch, a Los Angeles-based journalist.
"What are parents with small children supposed to do?" she asked me. "Never travel?"
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.