Child-free flights: the debate goes on

Not long after the internet argued over babies in first class, now we’re squabbling again over the idea of child-free (or child-friendly, depending on how you look at it) sections of airplanes. After banning babies from first class, headline-grabber Malaysia Airlines is now introducing a no-kids zone in economy class. Yesterday, my colleagues over at Huffington Post Travel put together a nice little debate about children-only sections and flights, framing the debate with several thoughtful (and amazingly rational) viewpoints, and asking readers to share their opinion both before and after reading both sides. However, after spending some time reading the comments and considering both sides, I’m not sure they are mutually exclusive. I’m also not sure if I agree with the concept or not, or if I would fly with an airline who made such a division, but my initial reaction is why not?

It all depends on how the divide is presented: are they banning children from certain sections of the plane, or are they offering child-friendly sections? The NO-divide camp argues that we should all get along, and that children won’t learn how to behave like adults if they are separate. I agree with this wholeheartedly, and as I stated in my babies-in-first-class post, we should ALL learn tolerance and consideration for others, and remember that commercial air travel is just another form of public transportation. I also believe that children should be taken many places to learn to behave appropriately in public, with adults, and out of their comfort zones. Does that mean a child who’s never traveled and is used to Chuck E. Cheese should be flown first class to New York and dine at Per Se? Probably a recipe for disaster.

On the other hand, the YES-divide peeps make a good point in that travel isn’t conducive to children, and a more kid-friendly experience would be a benefit to families. Sure, flying isn’t necessarily fun for families, but it sucks for many of us. The golden age of air travel has long become tarnished with the banning of liquids, the end of in-flight meals (we loved to hate those back in the day anyway) and blankets, the piling on of baggage and booking fees, the lack of legroom, etc, etc. We really love to complain about flying, especially on US carriers. So the idea of more “family-friendly” amenities like Air New Zealand’s “cuddle class” or complimentary activity books and nutritious meals for kids like on Malaysia Airlines would be a huge potential benefit, maybe even one worth paying more for.

Hang on a minute, did I just mention Malaysia Airlines and family-friendly in the same sentence?! Those baby-haters?! Given all the hype, I went to their website to see just how their meanie policies are presented. Instead of a big picture of a baby being fed to a dragon, I was surprised to find a section devoted to flying with children and infants, outlaying the aforementioned amenities plus others like additional baggage allowance for “baby essentials.” Technically, the baby ban is due to the fact that the new A380 jets are not equipped with bassinets, but what if you don’t need one? Trying a test search for a first-class ticket, the website does in fact block out the infant category, but children over two are permitted and infants are allowed in business class. The only other mention of the new policies is under the FAQ booking preferred seats, but this is likely due to the fact that children aren’t allowed to sit in exit rows and baby bassinets should be booked separately. In regard to the child-free zones, this will only apply to the upper deck of economy on certain flights, and if the lower deck is booked, you will be allowed to book up top. So really, flying Malaysia Airlines with children seems pretty decent, probably better than most American carriers for long-haul flights. You may not be able to take the baby in first class while he’s still a lap child, but as soon as he’s a walking, talking, seat-kicking two-year-old, you are free to shell out the thousands for first class.

What we need to do is put aside our emotions about how and if children should fly, because the fact is, they do. Some are good and some are bad. We should hope that parents will do their best to ensure their children aren’t a nuisance, but we can’t guarantee their behavior any more than we can force parents to get a license before having children in the first place (not a bad idea, but in theory, communism worked too). It would be nice to have more amenities to make flying with children easier, but it would also be nice to get our full-size liquids and free food back as well. Flying sucks, but let’s put our energy into being polite and helpful to our fellow passengers, because with or without children, the guy next to you is probably complaining about something you do anyway.