Is there a war on children in the air in the air? Seems like it's not only in the air, but also in the world's biggest online community, Facebook, where a new Web site called Unbaby.me offers to "delete babies from your newsfeed permanently -- by replacing them with awesome stuff."
When a friend posted the Unbaby.me app to his Facebook feed, I replied as follows: "How about an unyouryuppiesushidinner app?" Seriously, which is more boring, a picture of a baby or a picture of a plate of shrimp? We could just call it a draw, and get over it.
As a parent, I might be expected not to like the idea, but when it comes to isolating families on airplanes, I am fully and enthusiastically in agreement. In fact, whenever possible, let's go right past "kids-free" zones and set up "kids-only zones" or "family zones" -- and spare absolutely everyone except the parents the hassle of traveling next to kids.
But this would create a ghettoized section for families, many say. Or they ask how you could quarantine travelers that way just because they have kids. Or they say it's age discrimination. Or they wonder why there's no section for loudmouths or drunk people. Where does it stop? The humanity!
This isn't a new issue (see The Hue and Cry Over Babies Onboard, from 2010), so let's face it head on. I recommend a family section for every plane because I really can't see much of a downside. Let's have a look at the advantages.
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In most cases, the proposed family sections are in the back of the plane, which brings us to our first five advantages:
1. It is far away from first and business class, and away from most premium seating areas (it also rarely includes exit rows, so you don't have to assign around them). The most vociferous and adamant complaints about kids often come from the people who have paid the most to fly, and getting the kids away from them is good for the fat cats, and good for impressionable kids who don't need to be exposed to dour and cantankerous frequent travelers.
2. Engine noise is louder in the back of the plane, which will help drown out chatter and other sounds from kids. This effect can be significant; when seated in the back of the plane, people in the row behind you may be talking freely, and you can often barely understand what they are saying. The same goes for kids asking for drinks and snacks over the din of a set of DVD or iPad headphones; it sometimes barely cuts through the aircraft noise.
3. It is nearer the bathrooms. One of the challenges of flying with kids is getting them to the restroom quickly and easily. When in the back of the plane, you are that much closer, can see whether there is a line or not and will have many more opportunities to go because you won't be trapped in the front of the plane by the cabin service carts in the aisle.
4. Those seated in the back of the plane usually board first, which allows families to get their kids onboard, get all their stuff put away and get into their seats without hampering the rest of the boarding process. Until fairly recently, boarding families first was pretty standard; while anti-kids folks always seemed to resent the families-first policy, which is likely why it was scrapped, it sure worked well. Having little kids waiting in aisles while other folks stumbled and fumbled with massive carry-on bags in the aisles didn't go so smoothly for anyone. Get the kids on first, give them their snacks, then let everyone else board in peace. It will be faster, easier, quieter and safer.
5. Deboarding last can be better as well. It may not seem like it after a long trip where the kids are ready to get off the plane, the cabin temperatures are going up and it can be a long wait for everyone to haul their bags off the planes -- but a small upside is that all the gate-checked strollers will be ready and waiting by the time the families get off the plane, so there won't be kids collected in the gangway while everyone else deboards.
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6. Families can help one another. Many articles about flying with or near kids mention just giving in and helping out when the family needs it -- whether playing with the kid, or accepting that you will have to let them get up and down a lot, or switching seats, etc. A benefit of a family section on the plane should be that families can help each other through these trials, and kid-less solo travelers won't have to do so.
7. It will be more efficient for the flight crew. A family section will bunch together a group of travelers with the same goals and needs, which will allow flight attendants to deal with those specific issues in batches, and also relieve them of the need to referee disputes that occur when kids are spread all over the plane. A kid who is kicking the back of the chair of another kid who is restlessly jumping around a lot is not a problem to be solved; it is more like market efficiency.
8. It will be easy to sit families together. In the airline frenzy to find new fees to apply, there is growing controversy over whether fees should be charged to people who want to sit together. Near the forefront of the argument are families who feel it is almost criminal to charge extra money for a toddler to sit with a parent. One response of the airlines is that folks who don't want to pay the extra fee can simply work it out with other passengers once onboard. If you have a family section, this should be very easy no matter how you play it -- parents and children that are relegated to the family section should be very easy to seat together, and if by chance it does not work out, other families will often be willing to work it out. While it is a tough ask for a business traveler to move to a lesser seat to accommodate someone's kids, another parent will be far more likely to do so.
9. No fees, and cheaper fares? As I suggest above, fees to sit together become moot when there is a family section -- and if these are such ghetto sections, perhaps the fares will be kept under control as well? We all know it is not likely -- airlines are famous for turning an inconvenience into a "feature" for which you have to pay more -- but if the kids ghetto is so awful, it should be priced lower, right? Ain't gonna happen, I know, but I can try.
10. A separate peace. In most cases, all of the benefits to families outlined above also accrue on the flip side to non-family travelers throughout the rest of the plane -- so everyone wins.
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And now the downsides to the approach, of which there may be a few:
1. If the family section is in the noisier rear of the plane, kids could have a harder time sleeping -- and every parent knows that a child sleeping through a flight is an ideal situation for everyone involved.
2. It also tends to be bumpier in the back of the plane, which could be a little more scary for kids. It also might be a bit more dangerous, as airplane seatbelts are not ideally configured for small bodies -- but if a family section is created, alternate seatbelts could potentially be installed.
3. I mention above that deboarding could be a little more difficult as kids run out of patience and stamina; parents who know how to travel often tackle this phase head on by keeping the DVD player going until it is time for their row to empty out.
4. Full planes will force non-family travelers into family sections. Inevitably, as a plane comes close to selling out, a non-family traveler will be forced into a seat in the family section. This could make for a tough go for anyone, but perhaps as a conciliatory gesture this person could be put at the front of the queue for upgrades, or the queue to take the seat of someone else who was upgraded -- or otherwise be tagged for potential relief in one way or another.
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What do you think -- are family sections ghettos or safe havens? Let us know in the comments.
The Independent Traveler