There we were, my husband and I, strapped in, gnashing our teeth, our eyes rolling back into our heads, and praying for a quick end.
No, this wasn’t electroconvulsive therapy. Try a screaming baby seated two rows behind us, 30 minutes into a three-hour flight.
Of course, this whole classic sitcom-moment could have been wildly more horrible. It could have been 30 minutes into a nine-hour flight to Italy. The baby could have been sitting directly behind me, and had explosive diarrhea while also teething. And, most frightening, that screaming, miserable child could have easily been our young son, who was seated right there between us.
When I spot a baby on a flight, oh, yeah, I’m wincing right along with you. But my uneasiness is less about the baby and mostly about the traumatized (stigmatized) parents traveling with the kid. The entire experience is basically set up to be rough as hell. Study the equation for a minute: inherent stress around airline travel + tiny human who can only communicate with tears + irritable neighbors throwing eye daggers your way the minute you stumble on the jet. Tally that up, carry the one and, yes, it equals a nightmare with steel wings.
Knowing this, one couple traveling with 14-month-old twins decided to go pre-emptive: they handed out treat bags of candies and ear plugs to fellow passengers with a note -- “from” the babies -- apologizing in advance, “in case we lose our cool, get scared or our ears hurt." It was sweet, and everyone called the parents thoughtful. Yes, and yes. But also, really? Is this where we are now? We have to court people with candies and cuteness to have their compassion surface? I’m willing to bet that there was still some Grinch on that flight who looked at the goodie bags and said, “Barrrgh! I'll eat your babies! And get off mah lawn!”
There’s no pleasing everyone, right? Well, maybe. This month, Malaysia-based airline AirAsia announced a new “Quiet Zone” -- seven rows behind the premium seats up front reserved for passengers 12 or older -- on its long haul flights, starting next February. And, the cherry on top: there’s no extra fee for these kid-free seats. You want extra legroom? Pay up. You want to read your USA Today without a dribbling puffalump eyeballing you? Here you go, with our compliments and a whole can of soda.
Of course, some parents’ knee-jerk reaction to this might be How dare you, you baby-hating ogres! I get it. The outrage makes some sense. There is a certain whiff of punishment for lifestyle choices attached to this idea. I had the nerve to procreate and now I want to travel and move about freely, too? Damn! Slow your roll, Greedy. But I ask those offended parents to think it though a little. If a Quiet Zone means you will have one less item on your List of Things to Worry About when traveling with kids, one less row of annoyed passengers mean-mugging you, then let’s do this, America!
But first, I have some concerns.
Obviously, planes are not like commuter trains, where a quiet car is a separate and contained metal box. On an airplane, you can’t sequester people (even though, yes, the folks in First Class do live an entirely different life than the rest of us fools in coach, divided by a flimsy drape). What if there’s a tantrum-y toddler seated in row eight, right behind the Quiet Zone? What about overbooking, when seats and any kind of order get jumbled? (Like that ever happens on commercial flights these days.) Is the next move looking into child-free flights?
That’s where my enthusiasm for can’t-we-all-get-along-ness wanes and I get back to basics: Babies cry. Kids get restless. Parents are juggling enough. So if you want to fly undisturbed by life, get some pricey headphones from SkyMall or get over it.
Even with some logistical kinks ironed out, the idea of child-free flights will only ever be just that: an idea. Working towards a more comfortable, enjoyable flying experience for everyone is complicated. It involves more than simply shifting around where the under-12 set sit at 30,000 feet in the air. It involves changing how we deal with each other on a human level. And that, especially these days, feels like growing wings of our own.