In the early 1970s, my mother decided to load up her three young children, then ages two, four and five, to fly to Toronto from Vancouver to visit her parents in Mississauga, Ont.
The Air Canada flight, as she recalled for years, was a nightmare, in large part because of what were then called stewardesses. When she wasn’t being ignored, she was treated with contempt.
At the time, stewardesses were still in their early incarnation, which was as flirtatious waitress/ nurses who would fulfil all your fantasies … if you were a man. (To preserve the aura of availability, stewardesses were once required to be single — those who got married or, God forbid, had a baby, had to quit or hide it.)
If you were a young mom with toddlers in tow, you pretty much didn’t exist, except as a problem.
Gosh, how things have changed. Yep. Now we call them flight attendants.
And as the recent episode of the pregnant singer from Ontario who was kicked off a San Francisco-to-Vancouver flight because of her failure to “control” her crying toddler illustrates, flying hasn’t become a whole lot more baby- and toddler-friendly.
Apparently, an almost two-year-old was more than the flight attendants on this United flight could cope with (SkyWest Airlines claims the boy was running in the aisles; mother Sarah Blackwood says though he was squirming, he never left her lap, an account confirmed by at least one bystander).
They took one look at a child who wasn’t even big enough to require his own seat and threw up their hands in despair, calling a halt to the flight until he was removed — even though by then, he was sound asleep.
The whole process delayed the flight by more than an hour and turned a five-hour travel day into a 13-hour travel day for a seven-month-pregnant woman and her toddler — cruel and unusual punishment for both parties.
It might be understandable if we were talking about a 250-pound British soccer fan who was downing tequila shots before the flight and decided the pilot needed to be shown how to fly a plane, but a 23-month-old who probably tops out at 30 pounds with a loaded diaper, eats Cheerios off the floor and sleeps with a stuffed animal?
This is a security threat?
Before turning the plane around, did they try apple juice and fishy crackers? Paper-bag hand puppets and Baby Mum-Mums?
My kids are now at an age when all it takes is personal video screens to keep them quiet for up to nine hours, but I remember the trials of flying with infants and toddlers.
I can recall only two instances when I was impressed by family-friendly treatment while flying, and in both cases it was by charter companies, not airlines.
Air Transat whisked us into priority lineups and handed out activity packs to keep the kids amused in flight — and they’ve won awards for their family-friendliness. A Sunwing staffer at Victoria airport went out of her way to ensure we could sit with our kids on a crowded plane, even though we hadn’t been able to book seats together in advance.
Most airlines meet you at the door of the plane with your stroller, which is much appreciated, and let you check your carseats for free.
Some offer pre-boarding for families. But you still often have to pay hefty per-seat fees to sit together, even though sitting apart isn’t much of a viable option (although tempting at times).
I was outraged a few years ago when Aeroplan charged me a per-ticket fee to book flights through an agent, even though I was booking for a three-year-old and a four-year-old. Some U.S. airlines even charge “lap fees” for babes in arms.
As flights have become more crowded, many airlines have dropped kid-first amenities and policies, leaving families at the mercy of individuals who may or may not be understanding.
Once, returning to Victoria from a long-haul flight from London via Vancouver, we ended up with a two-hour wait for a flight to Victoria. The kids were three and five and exhausted.
I asked the Air Canada/Jazz representative if there was space to seat us on an earlier flight and was told that I would have to pay a change fee. The kids were done in and for once, I didn’t care that they were acting out. It had the desired effect: They got us on that earlier flight after all.
Generally, my good experiences have come down to a few warm-hearted individuals: The flight attendant or check-in person who went out of her way to ensure that if there was a spare seat on the plane, it was the couple with the baby who got to take advantage of it.
It’s not just airlines that can make flying more stressful for parents of small children, however — sometimes it’s intolerant passengers.
Just look at the stress etched on the faces of mothers of fussy infants the next time you fly — they’re more tense than Stephen Harper at a Gulf Islands potluck. One warm, supportive word from a seatmate or neighbour and they practically melt with gratitude.
You see, we’re all on the same page here: parents, flight attendants, airlines and fellow passengers. Nobody wants to listen to a wailing baby or toddler for the duration of a flight, least of all the parents. So rest assured that mom and dad are doing their level best to make sure that doesn’t happen.
In most cases, the baby or toddler eventually quiets down, but you can guarantee that intolerant neighbours and flight attendants won’t make that happen any faster.
A relaxed mom makes for a relaxed child. She needs your support, not your judgment.