Child-free Travel?

September 14th, 2010 by Andrea Bennett

The debate surrounding family-only zones on planes.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The passengers on my flight from New York’s JFK to Istanbul thought it was a transatlantic miracle: my six-month-old angel slept for 10 hours, waking up only to eat and flirt with the man sitting next to us.

Yesterday, I wasn’t so lucky traveling with my now-17-month-old on a flight between Salt Lake City and Atlanta. It seems that she’d like to push this new mobility concept she’s discovered, even if we are 37,000 feet in the air and squished like small bugs between two generously proportioned people. I’ll put it this way: there was shrieking and attempted seat kicking.

After realizing I was in the crosshairs of one man’s particularly malevolent stink eye, I thought, “Maybe family zones on planes wouldn’t be such a bad idea.” That way, I’d be free of embarrassment when we disturb the peace, and perhaps even comforted by the presence of kids who would inevitably be louder than mine.

The topic came up again recently, when a 67-year-old American woman on a Qantas flight from Darwin to Alice Springs sued the airline after a three-year-old’s shriek apparently made her ear bleed.

Prompted by this disturbing case, Skyscanner, a travel search site that compares airline ticket prices, polled more than 2,000 people about their feelings on families-only sections. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would prefer them. Non-parents liked the idea even more: 68 percent were in favor. And nearly a quarter childless respondents went so far as to say that they’d prefer a flight free of any children.

A survey by Tripadvisor in the UK last year revealed even greater support there: 79 percent of Britons said there should be child-free zones on planes.

Among parents, the feelings were more mixed. In Skyscanner’s survey, fewer than a third of parents were in favor of the families-only section, and this is where my own opinion differs: 45 percent of parents said they didn’t want a families-only section because they didn’t want to sit next to “other people’s horrors.” Personally, I’d rather endure a naughty kid than a non-parent angry with my naughty kid.

Naturally, there would be some logisitical issues to implementing family zones. Want to change your seat? You’d probably have little flexibility. And how would airlines handle parents with infants-in-arms (under 24 months)? They don’t even have to report they have a child until check-in.

As a mom, I’m torn: I understand why people would want family zones on planes, and I’d be ok sitting in one. On the other hand, I worry airlines might use this to find a creative new fee to charge people (for instance, those who don’t want to sit close to kids). And in general, could this kind of segregation open the travel experience up to others: would we eventually find a large-seated section for people with large seats?

Parents and non-parents, how do you stand? Are child-free zones the right thing to do?