Flying with a toddler? Fasten your seatbelt, advises Dugald Jellie. There's a white-knuckle ride ahead.
Late last year, I checked in at Dulles International Airport, near Washington, DC, with a suitcase, a car seat, a stroller, carry-on luggage and a toddler with wet pants. Ground staff clocked the nappy status before we passed through customs. Ahead lay a journey into the unknown: crossing the expanse of the US, the wonder of the Pacific, nine time zones, the date line and perhaps the limits of reasonable parenting. Two days later, I would land in Australia a broken man.
What follows here is a cautionary tale about single parenting and long-haul flights. Motion-sickness bags are used. Toilet visits (for me, at least) are problematic. Sleep deprivation is a given. As the Australian author and early-parenting guru Robin Barker advises: "It's difficult for me to be positive about travelling any distance with toddlers." Cartoonist and parenting writer Kaz Cooke is no less discouraging: "Travel with a partner or friend who can help you."
Like most fathers, I'd not read the literature. All I can say as an afterthought is that adventurer Bear Grylls might have killed a snake with his teeth on Man vs Wild, drunk his own urine and swum in a wetsuit made from a dead seal but I doubt he's ever taken a trip alone with a toddler.
Spending 19 hours and 51 minutes aloft in economy with our 21-month-old son, Ali, is a homecoming that tests the breaking point of air travel's social contract. If Picasso's Guernica resembles those lost hours of a long-haul overnight flight - a scene of individual suffering and discombobulation - imagine it with a child.
What is learnt in the company of strangers, in a dimmed cabin high above Hawaii, is that Thomas the Tank Engine is all that divides civility from a diplomatic incident. Single fathers be damned. Never have I known parenting to be so acutely public, so scrutinised by others, by the tired and huddled masses.
Common logic says children and planes do not mix. When 67-year-old American tourist Jean Barnard sued Qantas after a three-year-old screamed in her ear on a domestic flight from Alice Springs in January 2009, it made international headlines. The case was settled out of court. Public opinion on the conflicting rights of passengers remains on a simmer.
"A traumatic nightmare," is how one letter writer to Traveller last year described his international flight seated beside a mother and baby. Another opined: "Parents who ignore their children's inappropriate behaviour in confined public places (planes, restaurants and theatres) need to be reminded that they are not in their own family rooms." And another reader, having returned from London in Qantas economy, praised the service but complained of discomfort "caused by the ongoing noise of infants, whose parents made little effort to settle them". She concluded: "If parents take children on long-haul flights, they need to show consideration towards other passengers."
The public court of disapproval is unequivocal: children are less desirable passengers than even corpulent people, snorers and men who sit with limbs spread wide. I am that person nobody wants to sit beside.
Malaysia Airlines set a precedent last year, when it imposed a baby ban in first-class cabins on its Boeing 747s and Airbus 380s, said to be in response to complaints from well-heeled passengers. Money now buys peace and quiet as well as extra legroom and bubbles. The move prompted a spate of online polls; most respondents favoured the ban. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have said they are considering implementing child-free zones.
Aviation rules about international flights with infants are otherwise mostly uniform. Children under two years pay 10 per cent of an adult fare, plus taxes, for a ticket that, at the very least, entitles them to travel on an accompanying adult's lap. They cannot sleep on the floor, although some airlines are stricter about enforcing this than others. If an adult is travelling with more than one infant, a seat must be bought for each additional minor. Blanket laws prevent any child from being seated in an exit row.
What does differ between carriers, aircraft, routes and cabin staff is child-friendliness. I know this because I've accompanied Ali on 20 flights - traversing hemispheres, changing his nappy above three of the world's oceans, spooning him airline food and hoodwinking him out of the window seat.
It hardly seems plausible. I was seven when I first flew, on a TAA Fokker Friendship from Melbourne to Devonport. I was so excited, I cried, as I joined my parents and sisters on a family holiday. Not until I was an adult did I board a jet aircraft, on a trip to Darwin. My son is not yet two, yet has flown in an Airbus 380 three times and has been to the US twice.
A friend who travels regularly between Australia, Canada and South Africa with his wife and two young children had forewarned: "It's all about the flight attendants." His reasoning: if staff are courteous to children, passengers are obliged to acquiesce. But if they're abrupt, it gives others licence to follow suit. The attendants are the gatekeepers who maintain the social equilibrium in a crowded plane or let it plunge into the savagery of a mile-high Lord of the Flies.
"Little fingers, is it?" asks a Qantas steward with bonhomie on this most recent trip to the US. It seems for him a joy that our boy is preoccupied with the fold-down tray table and the immediate response of a flight-attendant button. Ali cannot talk but he knows how to summon. "I've got two kids: one and three," the attendant says. "I've never taken them flying."
It helps also that on the way to the US, we're a nuclear family: mum, dad and child. Responsibility is shared when he squirts UHT milk all over seat 51F, during the unscheduled six-hour layover at Los Angeles International Airport, and, oh yes, when he vomits repeatedly on his seat, clothes and us during the five-hour hop on an American Airlines flight from LAX to Washington, DC. No motion-sickness bags can be found. Passengers in the bathroom queue provide paper towels. We arrive at midnight covered in puke.
Back when he was just seven months old, travelling had seemed so straightforward, especially in the presence of the bassinet mounted on the wall above the bulkhead seats on most wide-body aircraft. Qantas, for instance, stipulates bassinets "may be requested for infants up to 18 months of age but the recommended age limit on international flights is eight months; the weight limit is 11 kilograms".
On that particular holiday, we flew with Singapore Airlines to Rome, had use of the bassinet (up to 14 kilograms) on the long leg to Europe and thought the crew were charming and the experience entirely pleasurable. It's no surprise that last year, Singapore Airlines ranked in the top tier in an online poll of family-friendly airlines, along with Etihad, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Thai Airways.
Penny-pinching among US carriers generally placed them down the list. We found this out the hard way, being bumped from requested bassinet seats on a fully booked 10-hour United Airlines flight from Rome to the US by passengers who had paid a premium for the bulkhead row's extra legroom. Still, it was no great hardship; Ali spent much of the flight asleep on my lap in the middle seat of the middle row. He charmed strangers. He wanted for nothing. He had no concept of jet-lag.
Checking in at Dulles on this most recent journey was, however, a different experience. I put him on the scales; he weighed 13.6 kilograms. My partner was staying on in the US, so I was travelling with him alone. I'd dreaded the moment, aware of an incident in which a three-year-old girl's tantrum saw her and her parents booted off an AirTran Airways flight from Florida to Boston before take-off.
The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority's website instils no confidence. "Assume the worst," it advises. "Every seat will be allocated, the toilets will not have changing tables, the airline will not have any suitable food, you will be delayed for several hours and any checked luggage will be lost."
My consolation during this flight is that parenting is a journey in itself. Maybe I'm a better person for having changed his nappy on the seat during turbulence, or for witnessing the disdain of others - the dog whistle of the wannabe jet-set crowd - when during the upright overnight trance, he ropes me into walking laps of the economy cabin.
We survive, they survive. Air marshals are not called upon. The sky does not fall in. Personal liberties and the contested space of an air cabin remain intact.
Jane Tara suggests lessons for young flyers.
HELL is someone else's children on a long-haul flight. But don't automatically blame the youngsters. Children who misbehave usually do so because they are allowed to by their parents. (Special thanks to the woman near me on a flight from New York to Frankfurt, who handed out bags of lollies to her three children. She ignored them for the entire flight; no one else could.)
I've travelled extensively with my children, aged 12 and seven, and I admit that I've always boarded with some apprehension and a quiet prayer: "Please, let my kids behave." And they have. I've taught them travel etiquette from a young age. I've made sure they know how to behave. I don't want my children to bother other people and, somewhat selfishly, I don't want them to bother me.
Travelling is my great passion and I've always wanted to share that with my children, not struggle through it with them.
These are some of the things I've taught them.
No kicking. I've had a child kick the back of my seat continuously from Tokyo to Hong Kong and when I politely asked his parents to ask him to stop, they behaved as if I was being unreasonable. They were unreasonable and their son was a monster. Under no circumstances should your child kick the seat in front. I usually remove my children's shoes on long-haul flights, just in case they kick accidentally.
Be prepared. Have your child carry a separate bag, with carefully chosen boredom busters inside. Keep smaller toys and games in Ziploc bags, for easy access. There's nothing more frustrating than searching a backpack for one elusive piece of Lego.
Ensure your child always wears shoes to the toilet. You'd be surprised how many people don't.
Don't let your child run up and down the aisles, ever. They need to learn to be patient, and to sit in their seats. Children who run along the aisles with parents behind, smiling wearily, are irritating for all other passengers.
If your child is restless, take him or her regularly to the back of the plane to stretch and play a few games. Then it's back to the seat.
Don't let your child stand up and peer over the seat at the passengers behind. What might appear cute to you can wear thin on others quickly.
For younger children, break the flight into sections to help pass the time: sleep time, play time, reading time, movie time, meal time, stretching time.
Encourage your child to play or read alone. You shouldn't be expected to provide constant entertainment. A bit of effort in this department when they're younger means you'll have independent little travellers before you know it.
Reinforce the need to be polite, patient and quiet. Children need to know that flight attendants have other people to deal with, and they are not the only ones on the plane. If children know what is expected of them, they will most likely exceed your expectations. Kids are like that.
Jane Tara is a children's author and director of Itchee Feet, which produces books and games for children who travel.
Qantas flies to Washington, DC from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1430 low-season return including tax. Fly non-stop to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then on American Airlines to Washington (4hr 45min). Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Getting there with children
For children (in fact, for people under 18) it costs $113 and this is valid for five years; see passports.gov.au. Good luck with the photo.
Children under two who don't occupy a seat are carried free of charge on most domestic flights. On international flights, the general rule is that infants (under 24 months) nursed on your lap are carried for 10 per cent of the adult's fare, plus taxes. Children aged two or more are charged 75 per cent of an adult's fare. There are exceptions: Jetstar allows infants to fly to New Zealand free but charges an adult fare for children.
Book a bassinet on the bulkhead row for a baby. These seats have extra leg room (read, play space) so are also good for toddlers.
This varies between airlines, routes and ticketing. Typically, on international flights in economy seats, you're allowed to check in one additional item of luggage (about 10 kilograms) for each infant you're travelling with, plus items such as fully collapsible strollers, portable cots and car seats. Check airline websites for details.
Visas and departure tax
Again, check before travelling. We paid $US25 ($24.60) for a 30-day entry visa when we took our then six-month-old to Bali, but when we left he was exempt from the R150,000 ($16) departure tax.
Airlines usually allow umbrella-folding prams to be checked at the departure gate — handy when you have a stopover en route.
Your list should include nappies, wipes, spare clothes (for child and parent), plastic bags, pyjamas, sleeping bag, bottles, bibs, dummies, favourite toys, baby books. Fifteen hours is a long time to keep a 15-month-old amused. Also consider bringing a lightweight portable cot if you're moving about; collapsible stroller; and a compact car seat (hire-car companies have them, but you don't know the condition they'll be in).
Many airlines provide infant/children's meals on request when booking. Make sure the food is appropriate for your child. Remove juices and sweets to reduce the risk of air sickness. Airport security and airlines generally let you take water, milk and food for infants onboard. Give your child a bottle, thumb, dummy or food on take-off and landing to help equalise ears.
Some parents swear by antihistamines such as Phenergan for inducing children to sleep, others never touch the stuff. Such medication is not recommended for children under two. Seek medical advice if you're planning to use it.
See essentialbaby.com.au, the online parenting community published by Fairfax Media.
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