By Imane Kurdi
ON July 1st Malaysia Airlines will fly its first A380 plane. Passengers on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to London will mark not only a milestone in the history of Malaysia, but a milestone in the history of airline travel: This flight will be the first child-free flight, or almost.
For years, survey after survey has found that what airline passengers want the most is the opportunity to fly without children. Just last month, a British survey found that 53 percent of respondents supported child-free flights. Complaints about crying and screaming children consistently top the list of passenger gripes, even more so that being squished like sardines in seats with little legroom or eating food so bad you would never pay for it in a restaurant. Frankly, I find that staggering.
So I undertook a straw poll of friends and acquaintances. To my consternation, I find the 53 percent representative. Many tell me they would happily pay for the option of flying child-free. When I react with shock, they point out that there are plenty of child-free hotels, restaurants, and resorts, so why not planes? Besides, do you know just how awful it is to fly with children screaming all around you?
Why are people so intolerant, I think to myself. We were all children once, why feel so upset because a child is not sitting still and quiet like an adult? Adult flyers create a bubble around them, each retreats behind the wall of ear-phones, a book or a computer tablet, a magazine or even sleep.
The aim is to pretend the other passengers are not there, it is the only way to make bearable the fact that you are imprisoned in a small space with lots of strangers! Children intrude on that hard-sought privacy. They are curious, they explore their surroundings, they spill over into the space around them, and yes, they cry. But banning children, is that not just a little extreme?
As luck would have it, the following day I take an Air France flight and in the row in front of me I find a family of four: Mother, father, two-year-old boy, four-year-old girl. As soon as they take their seats, the writing is on the wall: Bickering, arguing, jumping up and down on the seats. I notice the angry stares of other passengers and shake my head in disapprobation.
As we take off, the screaming starts. The little girl wants the boy’s bottle. They fight over toys for the duration of the flight and take turns crying. Exasperated parents tell them to shut up in louder and louder tones whilst keeping their eyes firmly on iPad for the father and book for the mother. Here I think bring on super nanny! It is not children that should be banned but lazy parents!
A friend once told me that taking his children on a flight was an operation of military precision. With his wife they would meticulously plan the toys and activities they would take, then pencil in a schedule in ten-minute slots so that the children were kept busy, entertained and stimulated for the duration of the flight. I thought it a little exaggerated at the time, but sitting listening to the screams from the row in front and looking at two parents who naively thought that young children would entertain themselves without any attention or work on their part, I thought it not so exaggerated after all.
And then it was time to land. The mother strapped the little boy on her lap. He pulled at her hair. She told him off. He started to cry, then weep, then scream — uncontrollably. Everyone turned toward them, you could literally feel the anger and annoyance in the air! Pay for child-free flights? I could see plenty of potential customers around me.
It was noticing the number of complaints on Twitter about crying children that pushed Malaysia Airlines to offer child-free flights. The A380 is a double-decker plane, so they thought why not offer a child-free zone? They’re offering a child-free top-deck: 70 economy and 66 business class seats where children under 12 will not be allowed. Families can still fly in the lower deck, but not up above. It is an airline first, no other airline has yet dared ban children from flights, or sections of flights.
Are child-free flights the future of flying? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. It’s an expensive option for airlines to introduce and though many say they would willingly pay more for flights without children, in reality they are unlikely to pay up. It is also a dangerous precedent. Yes, there are adult-only hotels, restaurants and resorts, but taking it to aeroplanes is a step too far.
Children cry, they can be a nuisance, but banning them from flying is discrimination against families. Even creating child-free zones as Malaysia Airlines has done may sound like a good idea but inadvertently sends a signal that children are somehow less worthy than adults.
Children are part of life and we should be more tolerant toward them. Children not welcome is not a good sign. Imane Kurdi is a Saudi writer on European affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.