Air travel has always been a hot button topic.
But with carriers continuing to find new and nefarious ways to make flying even more uncomfortable, there’s one issue that still remains untouched, likely, because it’s the touchiest of them all: what to do with those unruly kids and non-stop screaming babies. Is it time for North American airlines to make way for kid-free zones on planes?
Oh, the indignities of air travel. They’ve taken away our legroom, our in-flight meals, even our pretzels, for heaven’s sake, forcing us to pay for services (checked baggage, confirmed seats) once standard and now ludicrously described as perks.
And yet we keep getting on board, in greater and greater numbers. Profits are up for airlines. Recently, buoyed by larger volumes and lower operating costs (surprised?), both Air Canada and WestJet reported handsome second quarter returns for 2017. On June 29, Air Canada set an all-time record for passengers, herding 167,000 of us onto their jets in one day.
Even the beleaguered United Airlines south of the border, facing almost weekly pushback over its sins against customers and their belongings, has come through with $818 million USD in profit for the second quarter, up 39 per cent from last year, along with an increase in passenger traffic of 4.2 per cent.
So, people don’t seem to mind being treated like cattle, but one thing they cannot stand is a whiny child in the seat next to them, if the polls are to be believed. A 2012 survey in the United Kingdom found that 70 per cent of fliers would support the idea of child-free flights, reports the Telegraph. A 2014 poll by travel company LateDeals came away with a similar majority.
Why the uproar? Julie Bindel, columnist for the Guardian, sums it up.
“Clearly, some of you will be disgusted at this, but I can’t say I am keen on kids slamming me in the back, screaming in my ears, and sticking their jammy paws all over me when they escape the clutches of their guardians and look for someone to play with.”
Bindel was writing last October in response (in rejoice, really) to the announcement by India’s IndiGo that it would start offering child-free spaces on commercial flights. Calling them “Quiet Zones” where children under 12 are forbidden, IndiGo’s reasoning is that “the comfort and convenience of all passengers” is at stake. “These zones have been created for business travellers who prefer to use the quiet time to do their work,” said the company in a statement.
How is the airline doing? It now boasts being the largest Indian carrier by passengers, with a second quarter growth of 26 per cent this year.
But the kid-free airline policy has surfaced in other places, as well. In 2012, both Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia instituted the practice, and in 2013, Singapore’s Scoot airline started up its ScootinSilence quiet cabin zones.
Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson says he’s toyed with the idea of a kid’s class, a whole separate cabin for kids and nannies, but ran into roadblocks from the Civil Aviation Authority — “They worry that in an emergency, kids would be running in one direction and their parents would be running in the other,” said Branson. “So we haven’t got it through yet.”
Of course, many folks remain, to put it gently, unimpressed by the proposal.
“It’s such a cliché to whine about crying babies on airplanes that people forget that air travel is truly no more refined than public transit,” says columnist Julia Lipscombe in a recent Edmonton Journal article. “If you think that while you sit there, shoulder to shoulder with your fellow passenger, munching on a tiny packet of pretzels and waiting for the flight attendant to fill your cup from the communal water bottle, that you are entitled to some blissful, child-free space, you’re delusional.”
But the kid-free debate is reflective of a wider battle in society between those of us who have kids and those of us who don’t. The scene has been percolating for a generation or two, as parenthood is now viewed as a personal choice whereas in the past it was taken as a given.
From one side of the fence, at least, your choice to crowd up my favourite coffee shop with obnoxious strollers and to take over my evening dining experiences with your ill-tempered toddler is a problem, since it pits my lifestyle choice against yours.
From the other side? One writer for parenting.com tells everyone, in no uncertain terms, to “suck it up,” saying, “Haters, if you really want to fly without the ‘threat’ of screaming children nearby, then max out your credit cards and go by some jets. We family travellers have every right to fly with our kids.”
And there we have the nub of the issue: passengers’ rights. There’s something about air travel, about all transportation, really, that hits at the fundamentals of democratic society. People begin talking in terms of rights and equality, injustice and discrimination.
Ottawa, for one, is in the midst of doing its part by legislating a bill of rights for Canadian air travellers. Expected to be in place by 2018, the plan is to go above and beyond mere consumers’ rights which apply to any transaction in the marketplace and to lay down the rules that airlines must follow, along with the kinds of compensation they must pay when they infringe upon said rules (like, when they leave people stranded on a runway for six hours, for example).
But, really, why the special rights and equality treatment for buying plane tickets as opposed to all the other ways we spend our money? Western culture is awash in displays of wealth and privilege. If you have the money, you can drive a Porche, sit in the golds at hockey games and hang out in VIP movie theatres (adults-only, by the way) all you want, without anyone batting an eye. But heaven help us if you want to pay extra to sit in business class on a plane. The egalitarian in us starts seething.
And don’t think that North American airlines aren’t aware. In 2013, the travel sector publication Skift polled representatives from all the major US carriers on the topic of child-free zones on planes. In essence, they all responded with the same tight-lipped rejection, here exemplified by a spokesperson from American Airlines who said, “While this question has been asked of AA periodically, we have no plans to create child-free zones and do not have anything to comment on further at this time.” Okay.
WestJet was only a little more indulgent when responding last year to the same from Global News. “We would not consider the idea,” said WestJet spokesperson Robert Palmer. “We are a proud, family-friendly airline.”
Aside from the public relations boondoggle, there are practical reasons to dislike the kid-free zone idea, too, say industry representatives. Cantech Letter spoke to George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com, who said it would be a logistical nightmare for the airlines.
“I do not see this ever happening,” says Hobica. “Airlines don’t guarantee seat selection even if you pay for a certain seat. They can move you for a variety of reasons (safety, accommodating other passengers, change of equipment to a smaller plane, etc).”
“And besides,” says Hobica, “a screaming child sitting in row 20 in a ‘child zone’ can be heard quite handily in row 18, or row 15.”
Ken Whitehurst of the Consumer Council of Canada says that people already know that business sections on planes are a lot quieter than economy and so they’ll upgrade if they’re looking for that extra peace and quiet. Plus, loud kids and babies may be less of an issue for the carriers themselves, in the end. “There may be a cost-competitive issue,” says Whitehurst, in conversation with Cantech Letter. “The alternatives already in use, like earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones might be the cheaper solution.”
Is it a dead issue, then? Possibly.
But by cutting out all the free amenities and making us pay for every service above and beyond the bare bones, aren’t the airlines already nudging us towards a certain vision of air travel, one that says, “If you’ve got the money, you can have the extra leg room, the meal and the glass of wine.” And maybe soon, for the right price, you can have the kid-free flying, too.