Life Travel Mayday! The perils of toddlers at 30,000 feet
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Mayday! The perils of toddlers at 30,000 feet

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Some years ago a prominent Melbourne businessman stepped off his business class flight to Dubai loudly proclaiming that his fellow passengers should get their money back because of the mayhem his three small children had caused on board.

“The kids were out of control,” he admitted ruefully. “Everyone should get a refund. There was nothing my wife and I could do to calm them down. They were running around all over the place.”

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Little kids and long haul flights don't go together. Photo: Getty
Little kids and long haul flights don’t go together. Photo: Getty

Of all the things that can make us shudder in the sky, let’s be honest and add another one to the list: toddlers at 30,000 feet, sometimes yours, more often than not someone else’s.

They’re not as bad as footy teams on end-of-season trips, Vegas-bound bucks parties or food-fighting schoolies, but sometimes a screaming, writhing two or three-year-old can rival any of those. Actually, all three at once.

I’m not troubled by infants because they usually nod off at some point. Kids over five don’t bother me much either because they tend to hook themselves up to a video game or movie the moment they board. But ages one to five? Watch out, especially on a flight lasting almost 16 hours. And for those who think I’m anti-kids, let me say I’ve travelled happily with my own for more than two decades, since before they turned one.

Things can get especially bad if you’ve spent close to the price of a small motor vehicle to sit forward in the plane or, as my wife and I did recently, used a lifetime of frequent flyer points to a get a precious upgrade only to have the experience ruined by shrieking toddlers and stressed-out parents unable to control them.

Worse, airlines – well, Qantas at least – won’t take ownership of the problem. Badly behaved kids ruined your journey? Don’t blame us, they say, blame the parents.

“You have every right to expect a relaxing and comfortable journey when travelling with us, so I regret that your enjoyment of this flight was affected by the behaviour of nearby children,” wrote ‘Samantha’ after I’d complained to Qantas that our LAX-Melbourne flight last month had left us wrung-out and exhausted because of the misbehaviour of two tots sitting with their mum and dad in our row.

(The airline’s customer service officers don’t use surnames, don’t allow you to reply directly and take three weeks to get back to you. Which means, of course, that ‘customer service’ is an unfortunate oxymoron.)

Often parents are too exhausted to handle a tantrum. Photo: Getty
Often parents are too exhausted to handle a tantrum. Photo: Getty

I thought I had a pretty good case for at least some restitution of those precious points: At one stage in our long, long sleepless flight the younger of the two toddlers fell into my wife’s lap, as she tried to avoid the grip of her parents, all of them exhausted and disoriented. Come to think of it, we were pretty exhausted and disoriented by then too. But ‘Samantha’ wasn’t moved by any of this.

She went on: “I understand how frustrating this situation was for you, we do rely on parents to ensure that their children do not disturb other passengers and each child’s behaviour is ultimately the responsibility of the accompanying adult.”

Which was a cop out almost as big as the ageing jumbo Qantas flew us home on.

Surely the airline has to take some responsibility for the behaviour of all unruly passengers, whether they be kids, drunks or wide-eyed zealots out to do you harm.

Frankly, I was astonished to find two small children boarding a 16-hour flight leaving at midnight. Had the airline counselled their parents against this? And why seat them slap bang in the middle of the cabin? It would have been better for all if they’d been accommodated at the very front or rear of it.

And even if you accept those realities, why aren’t airline crews more supportive of parents struggling to comfort their kids? I had to approach crew members in the galley about ten hours into the flight when the mother and father started squabbling mid-cabin.

“I think the lady in our row needs help,” I told a flight attendant. “Her kids are screaming and her husband’s giving her a hard time.” The attendant spoke to the mother in her native tongue but it was all a bit late by then. Another five hours of tension and stress ensued until we touched down in Melbourne late morning. No one in our row had had a wink of sleep.

Click on the owl for former Age and Family Circle Travel Editor Janne Apelgren’s tips on how to travel well with little people  

Business class should be peaceful, pleasant and worth your $15,000 fare. Photo: Getty
Business class should be peaceful, pleasant and worth your $15,000 fare. Photo: Getty

But apparently I have no recourse. Those tens of thousands of frequent flyer points are lost forever, pressed into service on a flight I’ll long remember, but would prefer to forget. It was not a business class experience by any measure. At various points I’d have happily moved to the cargo hold.

“I have reviewed your file and our response with my Manager and regrettably, I am unable to offer any compensation and there is nothing more I can add to my previous explanations,” ‘Samantha’ wrote. “All I can do is assure you that we are committed to improving our service and are working with other partner areas on achieving this.”

Whatever the hell that means. Talk about landing with a thud.

After I received that mean-spirited response last week I went online and priced a one-way, business class Qantas flight from LA to Melbourne. If you wanted to grab one of the last seats on the plane flying out just before midnight tonight it would cost you more than $15,000. That’s right, FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Now, I’ll never do that, but if I did I’d like to know before I put my money down that there’s a fair chance I won’t get a wink of sleep and will have to endure a 16-hour domestic disturbance.

When that happens, whose fault is it ultimately – the parents, the kids, the airline? Maybe all three. But I do know one thing: it sure as hell isn’t mine.

And though I know that this is ultimately a first world problem and I should put it behind me, I detest poor customer service and think we should rise up against it whenever we can. So, here’s one final, simple suggestion: if Qantas or any other airline for that matter wants to take thousands of your hard-earned or more than 100,000 of your frequent flyer points they should be required tell you beforehand whether there’s a fair chance the flight’s going to be disrupted by the Under-18’s, Big Normie’s buck’s turn or the terrible twins across the aisle. They have all that stuff in their ‘system’.

Armed with that information, you have the option of saying, ‘Thanks, I’ll catch the next one.’ And then we can all get some sleep.

SUNDAY-BEST-HOME

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