Screaming Children And Airline Responsibility
With summer travel season squarely upon us and airlines desperately looking to increase profitability, airplanes are seemingly packed like never before. The pressure put on staff to gate-check bags, ensure a timely boarding process, and troubleshoot last-minute seating challenges is tremendous. Passengers find themselves equally stressed by the TSA gauntlet, cramped quarters, and the shrinking set of free amenities. Talk about a powder keg of potential in-flight problems.
Enter the screaming child.
As a father of two, I know the screaming child. I’ve had to try and manage one or two of them in my day, and let me tell you—even on a sparsely populated flight, it’s no fun. While the judgmental eyes of fellow travelers are difficult to weather, they pale in comparison to the self-imposed, stomach-churning agony you feel when your child is screaming and you are powerless to ease their pain. Fortunately, my children have grown into pretty calm, little frequent flyers, but what of those who haven’t? What is or should be the responsibility of the airline to assist a parent in calming their agitated child? What is the responsibility of the airline to other passengers in these situations?
These questions became quite real for me recently when flying from SEA to SFO on a packed flight. A woman, her sister, and her sister’s 4-year-old daughter boarded the plane toward the tail end of the boarding process. As they proceeded down the aisle, the mother politely asked those with empty seats if they’d be willing to switch seats so her sister could sit with them. After numerous rejections, she finally found a taker and ended up sitting across the aisle from me.
The flight was uneventful until we began our descent at which point the 4-year-old began screaming and writhing uncontrollably—“Exorcist” style. The parent in me immediately guessed that the girl’s ears must be plugged and causing her excruciating pain. Sure enough, the mother tried to get the girl to chew on food, gum—anything to get her ears to pop. Nothing worked, and the girl continued to scream for 15 minutes. A flight attendant stopped by once to offer something, but otherwise, the episode ran its course as nearby passengers slapped on noise reduction headphones and shot the mother looks of disdain.
This scenario undoubtedly plays out hundreds of times each day on countless airlines around the world. It can negatively impact operations, tank customer satisfaction, and sully the brand experience. Clearly, the industry needs approaches more flexible than Malaysian Air’s “no-child zone” or WestJet’s fictitious “Kargo Kids” program. Here are a few suggestions that may mitigate the problem of the screaming child in ways that benefit parents, fellow passengers, and the airline brands themselves.
1. FIX FAMILY SEATING ISSUES BEFORE BOARDING
When a young child is in the mix, airlines should do everything they can to ensure family members are seated together. Forcing mothers and fathers to beg for fellow passengers to change seats is simply unacceptable. It places passengers in an extremely awkward situation, prolongs the boarding process, and gets the flight off on the wrong foot. Operations, customer service, and marketing all have a stake in making sure those accompanying young children are seated with them in case issues arise.
SOLUTION: Identify and remedy family seating issues before boarding begins. If necessary, offer travel vouchers or special in-flight amenities to those passengers who agree to change seats.
2. PROVIDE KID-FRIENDLY FLIGHT INSTRUCTIONS
While I have never (thankfully) had to use my seat cushion as a floatation device, I’m instructed on how to do so on every flight. Not once, however, have I been instructed on what to do in the face of a screaming child—even though I’ve been seated by one over 100 times in my travels.
SOLUTION: Add a card in the seat-back pockets that offers insights on what to do when faced with a screaming child in-flight. Gear side one toward parents with helpful tips on how to avoid in-flight tantrums and what to do when one happens. Gear side two toward other passengers to help them be more empathetic and helpful. Underwrite the whole effort by seeking out a sponsor to share the cost. My guess is that children’s retailers will jump at the chance.
3. STOCK PLANES WITH EMERGENCY KID-PACKS
Unfortunately, not every parent is conscientious and well-prepared for the flight with their child. Since airlines know this, they should arm their flight attendants with the tools (i.e., crayons, toys, etc.) that could help diffuse a child’s tantrum.
SOLUTION: Take a cue from restaurants and stock each plane with a few children’s activity kits. Consult with a childcare expert to make sure they’re filled with the toys, gizmos, activities, and snacks that stand the greatest potential to calm an agitated child. Finally, educate flight attendants on how to best present these options to parents and assist if a tantrum does break out.
The bottom line is that the number of children who experience in-flight episodes can be reduced dramatically with some proactive involvement on the part of airlines. Parental and passenger education combined with some at-the-ready resources may not silence every screaming child, but they will go a long way to conveying which airline brand cares the most about its passengers—regardless of age.
Agree? Disagree? Have your own tales of in-flight child drama to share? Please share your thoughts in the comments.