Flying the friendly skies always feels a bit like playing a game of Russian roulette. There are the real life-and-death worries, like hoping and praying that you and your plane arrive at your destination in one piece. Then there are the worries that only feel like life-and-death, like hoping that you and your plane arrive on time and that your luggage does, too. Then there are the worries that make us contemplate the meaning of life, and whether it's worth living at all. Of course I'm talking about the fear of losing the ultimate game of traveler's roulette: finding yourself seated next to a screaming child during a long flight.
For the first time in a relatively well-traveled life, I recently lost this game of roulette, big time. In what I would have considered a hysterical story had it happened to someone else, I lost not just once, but twice, in a single flight. After an apologetic father sat down next to me with his toddler, who was screaming as they boarded the plane and showed no signs of letting up, Dad graciously apologized in advance for the inconvenience that we both were resigned to me experiencing for the next couple of hours. When his son specifically began screaming for his mother, who was seated with other children in another row, Dad decided the best thing for all of us was for the parents to do a kid swap. Mom would take the toddler screaming for her, while Dad would take a slightly older and "more well-behaved little lady" (his words). Only half way through the flight the little lady must have reached her daily quota for being "well-behaved." She decided she wanted Mommy, too, and wasn't taking "no" for an answer. So she did what any diva in the making would do: she stood on her seat and screamed, "I want Mommy!" at the top of her lungs for a few minutes, followed by other indecipherable high-pitched screams for more than 10 minutes. (I gave up counting after 10.) Her screams then woke up another baby, who, you guessed it, began crying, too.
Part of me felt bad for the dad. After all, when most of us get a poor job performance review, at least it's not in front of a room full of strangers. But here's a guy whose two kids, in less than two hours, let the entire plane know he was simply not up to the standards of Mom. He essentially got a public dressing down, Simon-Cowell-style, from two people who can barely speak complete sentences. That's got to be tough. Of course, the other part of me (the part that had gotten just four hours of sleep and had planned to catch up on the plane) didn't feel sympathy for anyone except the people unlucky enough to cross paths with me after I got off that plane. I was in a great mood. Let me tell you.
Apparently my experience with my tiny, vocal in-flight neighbors is not exactly what you'd call uncommon. Days ago Malaysian Airlines sent around a final warning notice to travel agents informing them that they will soon be launching child-free cabins to accommodate adult travelers tired of trying to drift off to a symphony of childhood cries while flying the friendly skies. According to the new policy, children under the age of 12 will not be permitted in the upstairs economy section of the airline's Airbus A380. While countless business travelers cheered the new policy, when it was first proposed months ago, many insulted and beleaguered parents angrily cried discrimination. (I missed this tidbit of history, but apparently at some point, having the right to foist unruly children upon the public became akin to efforts to garner African Americans the right to vote in terms of major civil rights battles. Who doesn't see the similarities?) One argument made by some parents, which did strike a chord with me, however, is this: What about misbehaving adults? Why single out kids?
This is a fair question. After all, while I've lost the traveler's game of roulette once in recent memory when it comes to children, I cannot count the number of times some misbehaving adult has helped disrupt a trip. Just off the top of my head, I can think of four times in the last month when I was comfortably seated in Amtrak's designated "quiet" car, which, as its title suggests, is for passengers who want to ride in a quiet car, and yet every single trip, some moron who can read English perfectly chooses to chat on his or her cell phone -- this despite the fact that the car is plastered with signs reading "Quiet Car: No cellphone use permitted." Mr. or Ms. Chatty then becomes indignant when anyone (I or another brave soul) politely points out that, "as the sign above you says, we're not supposed to use cell phones in this car." The most galling response I have received so far was last week, when a woman looked at the sign, then back at me, and snapped, "I can read!" to which I replied, "Apparently not, since that's your second call." Police actually escorted one woman off a train for refusing to refrain from using her phone in the quiet car. (For the record, I didn't call them!)
Yet it's the stories regarding unruly children that generate the most headlines, including a landmark lawsuit that was recently settled when a passenger experienced hearing loss after being seated next to a screaming child for an extended period of time. (Click here to read about that case and other infamous stories of bad behavior in the air.) So are segregated flights, with child-free cabins, the best solution, and potentially the wave of the future for airlines around the world? One flight attendant I spoke to, who identified difficult children on flights as one of her jobs' greatest stressors, seems to think so. (She asked that I not use her name or identify her airline, because she is not authorized to speak to the media.) Calling Malaysian Airlines' plans for kid-free flights "a genius idea," she added, "I cannot think of a better solution than this one."
But maybe I can. What if airlines or trains just fined people for unruly behavior? Before you dismiss the idea as crazy, consider this: Is it really any crazier than airlines charging us extra for checked bags when the service we are paying them for in the first place is to transport us and our belongings? The flight attendant I spoke with seemed to think it was actually a doable idea, in part because she confirmed the existence of something I had heard about years ago: airline reports on passengers who use a specific airline more than once. These "reports" are not background checks per se, but if a passenger gets drunk and belligerent on a flight, for instance, this will be noted, so that on their next trip flight attendants will be warned to pay extra special attention as they serve that person. If this is true, then why can't airlines and other industries of travel simply implement a financial penalty system for unruly travelers of all ages?
Those who consistently display the most disruptive behavior in the air or on the train could be made to pay up accordingly (or their parents could). The way it could work is thus: As part of the terms and conditions we all agree to when we purchase our tickets, a new condition would be added, one that states that we agree to accept an automatic flat fee charged to our credit card -- let's say $100 to start -- if the flight staff deem us (or our minor children) an intentionally disruptive presence on the trip. (Intentional meaning, it's one thing if a kid gets sick. It's another if they want to play hide and seek on a flight, and Mom and Dad choose to do nothing to stop it.) If a passenger racks up a certain number of penalties, then their future tickets would simply double, and perhaps eventually triple, in price automatically. (My friend Dylan Ratigan compared this to car insurance pricing.)
Maybe if they charged such a penalty to the businessman who got so drunk that he defecated on a food service cart in flight (true story), or to the parents of children who significantly delay a flight because they refuse to buckle up (happens more often than you think), either A) they could stop charging some of us those ridiculous fees for so-called extras that are actually basic service (like checked bags), or B) they would finally deter some people who lack the basic manners to exhibit appropriate behavior in shared public spaces, or who know that their kids lack the ability or maturity to display such behavior but travel with them anyway without thinking twice about the impact their choices have on others. Maybe if we were to hit people where it really hurts, in their pocketbooks, they would think twice, or three times, until finally they got the message that incivility is not a civil right.
Follow Keli Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keligoff