I’d Rather Be Grounded

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My mother, age 26, my brother and I a few months after we arrived in Ethiopia.

Pamela Chan, BCFamily.ca/Editorial

My rights versus your rights. That’s not society – that’s ignorance.  We get along by giving and taking space.  We share the highs and the lows. We deal with controversy not with fists or might but with compromise and good manners. (Comment left on YT video about a Canadian mother and her 23 month old child who were asked to leave a flight.)

Let’s Ask the Right Questions About Families on Planes

There has been a good amount of coverage regarding the latest trending parent and  23 month old child* versus an airline story.  The comments on this story (often bordering on vitriolic) are more illuminating than the story itself. Readers/viewers respond to information that sometimes doesn’t match first or second hand accounts of the story.  Others try to redirect the conversation by reintroducing details related to what is purported to have happened. Some people stick to their version of what they believe happened, or should have happened, and on it goes.

What do these online exchanges accomplish? When will journalists and casual social media readers ask the harder questions.

  • What type of support is available for parents who are traveling with their children?
  • If this level of support is insufficient, what needs to change?
  • Is it enough to say “bad parenting – tsk, tsk”, and move on to the next viral story?
  • What happened to the rest of the village who used to help raise the child? Surely each and every one of them isn’t staring at their Apple product and ignoring what is happening in their midst.  I don’t believe this to be true.  Do you?

Are Parents Served a One-Size-Fits-All Reponse if They Encounter a Problem?

SkyWest Airlines (who operated the United Airline’s flight mentioned in the latest incident) issued a response to this latest story:

“Despite numerous requests, the child was not seated, as required by federal regulation to ensure passenger safety, and was repeatedly in the aisle of the aircraft before departure and during taxi”.

In a separate incident, United airlines issued this statement about two twins (also 23 months old and under the important 2 year mark*) who were moved from Business class to economy:

“Because the children would not remain seated, the crew asked the family be removed to avoid delaying the rest of the customers on board.”

*Children under two are not required to have their own seat or to have their own car seat on board.

In both of these cases, the families contest the official version that their child was a mobile passenger in the plane while the plane was preparing to taxi to the runway.

Perhaps these types of situations aren’t common but I am seeing more and more status updates and shared comments and stories about entitled parents and their out of control progeny.  With cutbacks to airline services related to airline finances, it’s time we shifted the narrative and revisited how challenging airline flights can be for families.

Families Travel For All Kinds of Reasons

While some families are going on holidays – and we all deserve a holiday  – many are flying to be reunited with loved ones in different parts of the world or are relocating to another country.  Families fly for all kinds of reasons and any amount of support that they can receive along the way – even a friendly word from staff members and fellow passengers – helps immensely.

I’ve been flying on long haul flights since I was a month old. My mother flew with my 2 year old brother and me from Alberta to Ethiopia via a failed attempt to cross the Atlantic, after the plane’s engine caught on fire. We returned to Winnipeg, were placed in a cold airplane hanger and then flew on to London, Rome, Cairo, northern Ethiopia and finally Addis Ababa.  In those days formula was the norm. At one point my mother left me with a fellow passenger while she went off to find extra formula in her luggage, which was somewhere in the Winnipeg hanger. When we arrived in Addis Ababa, my father was excited to greet our family after a 6 month separation and to meet me for the first time.  My mother was speechless from exhaustion.

Years later she still remembers the kindness she encountered from fellow passengers or a flight attendant who recognized her in the airport and stopped to help her.  One gentleman, who was an experienced pilot, even took the time to gently advise and reassure her about an imminent announcement that there was a fire in the engine.

There Really Was a Golden Age of Airline Travel

I didn’t fly in the ’50s and ’60s but I still nailed the sweet spot for airline travel.  It can be hard to capture the differences between air travel now and then.  Suffice to say, you didn’t feel like you were being herded onto a bus.  You felt like you were an individual who had needs that could be met. You wore your best clothes when you went on a flight.  Friends and family met you when you arrived and came with you to the airport when you departed.  Flying was an event and airline companies vied with each other to provide the best quality of care for their passengers.

If an airline today emphasized this aspect of their product on offer – and delivered – I would pay extra just to access an old-school quality of service. I heard that one airline traveling to Europe had better service compared to others; however, when I spoke with people who have flown this airline they said “eh. It’s the same as all the rest”.  You wouldn’t know it by reading the description of their services.  Does the airline’s perception of the service they are offering match the experiences that people are having on board?

The Cumulative Effect of Small Gestures

As a child, I had an airline issued travel log book that was signed on every flight by the captain.  In the pre-locked cockpit door days, children were invited up to visit the captain.  Do children and captains mix and mingle much anymore?

Parents and their children boarded first even if they weren’t flying first class or frequent flyers.  You didn’t have to be under 6 to board first.  (See how the priorities have changed on this Air Canada web page.) By boarding first, the children were settled and out of the way when the larger group of passengers got on the plane.  We sat in places that made sense for both families and other passengers. It was easy to book the bulkhead row  even if you didn’t have a baby.  You would never see frequent fliers sitting in bulkhead seats while parents with children who requested the bulkhead row were seated elsewhere.  You simply didn’t see parents with a baby sitting in the middle of a section of  seats.  Seats in Economy were more spacious and had more leg room.  This space and the higher standard of services ensured that there was less air rage. It wasn’t uncommon to find an empty seat on which a child could stretch out.  On one flight we even had a volcano bubbling with champagne going down the aisle. We could expect meals on flights over 5 hours. Milk (heated by crew members, if requested), baby seats and diapers were provided, if needed. Flight attendants would walk by and adjust your blankets or stop and ask you periodically if you needed anything. I can still remember the faces of some of these flight attendants and their kindness.

Four Legged Babies Were Welcomed Too

On numerous occasions we also flew with our West Highland White Terrier dog at our feet in a special carry case. On one flight we flew from South-east Asia to the Netherlands with our dog.  The airline let us take him for washroom breaks outside of the plane.  We received complete support for our four legged baby. Nobody ever complained.

I’ve traveled anywhere from 1st class to economy but nowadays I’m thinking economy is feeling more like 3rd class.  One airline analyst explained recently that with the cutbacks to service, extra fees and add-on services, the basic economy seat ends up being a less than sustainable experience for passengers. (Consider issues such as seat size and points/space between the seat back and seat.) It’s no wonder there are strange stories about how people are sharing spaces, falling into air rage or hauling out their phones to record the side effects of co-existing in a cramped atmosphere where passengers are left to their own devices.  In order to make a longer haul flight across Canada or to another continent just bearable, a passenger needs to consider piling on more extra costs. To access the old style Economy service, you now have to pay extra for Premium Economy class (if it’s available).

I’m reminded of my mother’s saying  – “if you can’t afford to travel well, don’t go.” (She didn’t mean 1st class but simply at a standard that you like.) All things considered – and bearing this saying in mind – I’d prefer to stay grounded for now.

You can comment about this posting on the BCFamily.ca Facebook page. Your contribution matters so don’t be shy!


This Flying With Children website has a long list of great tips that have been shared by a former airline staff member.

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My second international flight, when I was 6 months old.

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