It’s a dreaded and familiar situation for air travelers: The toddler seated nearby screams ear-drum busting, brain-piercing outbursts for most of the flight. Worse, the kid behind kicks the back of your seat, drumming your spine at irregular intervals, causing you to plead quietly, and ironically, for the “comfort” of an undisturbed airplane seat. It’s impossible to concentrate on that project you’d planned to work on during the flight or enjoy your book. Gone is any slim chance of napping en route.
Embarrassed and frustrated parents console, cajole and order better behavior, but an emotional two-year old does not readily respond to reason. Annoyed and irritated passengers complain to companions, flight attendants and parents, usually to no avail. Changing seats is the best option, but packed flights often makes that impossible. The best you can do is try to be patient and bear it, knowing the future of humanity is on board. And, not all kids are bad travelers. You just hope and pray that the kid near you is well-behaved. Either way, you’re prepared with ear plugs and noise-canceling headphones.
But this dreaded scenario raises some important questions. What are the rights of parents to travel with young children? What are the rights of other passengers to basic comfort, including acoustic comfort while in a confined space? What is the most ethical way to resolve the conflicts that arise on airplanes, where both parties are held captive until the flight ends? Should airplanes create quiet zones?
Frequent flier before kindergarten
The US Travel Association, a group that tracks travel trends, reports that there is a growing trend for parents to travel with children. According to the Domestic Travel Market Report (2004):
One in four household trips in the U.S. (26%) include children under 18, or 170.1 million trips in total in 2003. Most (91%) trips with children are for leisure, nearly half of which are taken to visit friends or relatives.
If you think you’re seeing an increasing number of strollers being checked at the gate and more babies and toddlers on board, it’s not your imagination. The data show that young children under the age of 5 are traveling more with their parents. A generation ago this was almost an unheard of practice. But now home towns are farther away than ever before and babies are booming. It should come as no surprise then that the most efficient way to connect families and friends with children is via airplane. Places like Hawaii are magnets for families because of the warm ocean and safe, enjoyable environment.
No children to check
However, growth in travel is not limited to families. The number of people traveling without children is growing, too. In 2006, there were about 2 billion passengers trips in the US (Domestic Travel Market Report), about 75% of whom were single adults and groups of two or three adults. Business travelers have cut back, but their ranks are still swelling albeit not as fast as leisure travelers. In other words, there are more people, not just children, traveling by air in the US than ever before.
More affluent or experienced travelers might opt to upgrade to first class as one way to ensure greater comfort. This is certainly a great option, especially if you’re one of the lucky few with the highest elite status and score those upgrades for free. But the lower tier elites, especially on the busy business routes like New York to Dallas or Chicago to LA, less frequently land an upgrade. But even an upgrade with a better seat, a nice hot meal, more attentive service and a guaranteed power outlet doesn’t insulate first class travelers from screaming children. Because there are more parents traveling with young children, there are also now more children than ever before flying first class.
For example, I flew from Miami to Boston this week. I was lucky enough to score an upgrade (thanks to my travel companion’s higher ranking elite status). I settled in and looked forward to getting some writing done on my laptop. But as we taxied for take-off, screaming started two rows ahead of me. It was the kind of maternal reflex-triggering scream from an 18-month old that women have evolved to respond to: child screams, female checks in. The problem was that it wasn’t my child, and there are serious social taboos against checking on other people’s children in public. The screaming lasted for three hours, nearly the entire flight. When we landed, I drug myself exhausted from the plane. No work. No sleep. Nothing but an evolutionary reflex firing constantly that I couldn’t ignore or satisfy.
Airlines suck, but there’s a way to suck less
Airlines haven’t responded to the needs of the changing pool of passengers very well, apart from charging more for less. Hanging on the edge of bankruptcy, most are just trying to survive. The marketing subtext is that air travelers should be grateful that we still have domestic choices, even if they’re all crappy. Annual ratings of airlines done by J.D. Powers show that customers are increasingly dissatisfied with all US airlines, even though a few win awards. In an award survey someone has to win, but it doesn’t mean that people really like any of the choices. It’s a matter of which one is less awful.
One option for airlines to improve customer satisfaction is to create quiet zones, like those found on trains. An age minimum might be one of the requirements, along with a commitment to not chatter away to your neighbor. This may seem adult-centric, but in fact it could lower the stress, frustration and anxiety suffered by parents of the screaming kid who won’t quiet down. In other words, a quiet zone could make an airplane journey more comfortable for all passengers.
Here’s how it might work. Take a typical aircraft like the Boeing 757 with a 3-3 coach configuration and dedicate the first six rows (18 seats) as the quiet zone. Remove two rows (about 12 seats), one behind first class and the other after the last quiet zone row. Install thicker walls in place of the rows to reduce sound (sound proofing would be better, but not possible under TSA rules). Considering that it will cost the struggling airlines to remove seats, the price of the quiet zone seat would rise 10%-20% to cover the loss. For example, a $350 airfare from New York to Los Angeles would cost about $420 in the quiet zone. Throw in a free sandwich to make it more appealing.