Parent Abuse in Economy Class

As published in The Jakarta Post & other Asian papers (1995)

LOS ANGELES — A middle seat in the back of the plane. Not one of my favorite places at the best of times. A squirming 11-month old on my lap made it particularly enjoyable. My wife, six months pregnant, was stuck in the absolute last row. Our 7-year old was also back there somewhere, sitting with strangers.

An aging Broom Hilda tossed a bag of peanuts at me with a scowl. Where was the Singapore Girl when I needed her?

Southeast Asia to the heartland of the U.S. One of the longest trips on the globe. Tiring and uncomfortable up in the pointy end of the plane. Downright miserable back here in cattle class.

Call me a cheapskate, but somehow laying out bundles for the four of us to visit Grandma just didn’t seem cost-effective. So OK, I accept it that the seat in front is going to be in my dinner and that minor pleasures like straightening my legs will have to wait for 10 or 20 hours.

But I didn’t realize flying economy with the kids involved actual abuse. How long has this been going on? Why hasn’t someone reported it to the authorities?

If the airlines don’t want people traveling with children (a perfectly understandable attitude), why don’t they just say so? Don’t they know the U.S. constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment?

Take off the suit, trade the laptop for an infant, and prepare to join the ranks of the untouchables. I’ve seen tribesmen with goats on African airlines treated better.

"Whatever happened to pre-boarding families with children and the infirm?" I asked an L.A. ticket clerk (with, perhaps, just a hint of impatience) simultaneously juggling baby, changing bag and toy satchel, proffering the boarding passes, and trying to clear a path for my wife and daughter through the crowd of fellow passengers who had closed between us like the Red Sea.

"Oh yeah," was her carefully reasoned response. That ranked right up there with the attitude of the ticket agent in Sydney who was trying to explain why we had been split into separate rows when we had booked bulkhead seats: "Oh, that happens in these situations where we are overbooked."

I suppose there is a certain entertainment value for the cabin crew in watching half a dozen families play musical chairs so that each can end up with a row of their own (it must be quite a geometric challenge to find a way to split up every family on the plane).

Some of the other joys of travel with children:

Toilets with no baby changing tables: The trick is to wedge the infant between the sink and paper towel dispenser without dropping him into the loo.

Airports with no trolleys: Navigating the 27 kilometers between gates in modern airports while hauling baby, baby seat and the 20 kilos of stuff that goes in, out and on a baby should be part of the training regime for the Iron Man trials.

Double booked seats: There are few greater pleasures in life than standing with a crying baby in a crowded aisle during boarding while the steward tries to figure out why you, the baby and a 300 pound Fijian have all been given the same seat.

Care & feeding: In a total of some 60 hours in the air, the cabin staffs of two airlines managed to avoid asking even once if we so much as wanted a bottle warmed.

But at least the Aussies fed Mom and Dad. The U.S. airline’s idea of haut cuisine was a bag of peanuts and a Coke.

Have a nice day.

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