Babies and first class: why is this an issue?

babies first classEarlier this week, I saw a story about babies and first class air travel posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster asked our own Heather Poole (flight attendant, mother, and new book author!) for her thoughts on the story, and she replied, “I’m fine with babies in first class. Usually they just sleep.” Columnist Brett Snyder is a frequent flier and new dad wondering if he should use miles to upgrade his first flight with the baby. Reading the article and the many comments, I wonder: why is this (or really any story about babies and airplanes) a contentious issue?

Long before I even thought about having children, I thought the same about babies in first class that I thought about anyone in the front of the plane: must be nice for them. Sure, it might be a waste of money to give a premium seat to someone whose legs don’t touch the ground and who can’t enjoy the free Champagne, but it’s the parents’ choice to splurge on the ticket. If the parents are more comfortable, the kid might be happier and thus quiet — a win-win for everyone on the plane. Does the child “deserve” to sit up front? Perhaps not, but airplane seating has never been based on merit. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a passenger is a passenger, no matter how small.As the veteran of nearly 20 flights with an infant in Europe, the US and trans-Atlantic, I’ve been fortunate to fly a few times with my daughter in business class. While the roomy seats and meals make a 10 hour flight easier with a baby, more valuable is the ability to skip check-in and security lines, board the plane early, and spend layovers in a spacious lounge with a place to heat baby food or change a diaper. Some of those perks used to be standard for all passengers with small children, but have now gone the way of the hot meal in coach. Some airlines still make travel easier for parents: JetBlue is one of the only US-based airlines to allow you to gate-check a stroller of any size and check your first bag free (checking a bag becomes inevitable with a baby). Gulf Air offers free “Sky Nannies” on long-haul flights for young children, and Lufthansa offers a guide service (for a fee) to escort families traveling through their German hubs. Turkish Airlines (my most frequently-used airline while I live in Istanbul) always offers a “baby meal” and blocks off empty seats when possible to give us more room.

I’m also fortunate to have an easy baby who so far (knock on wood) has been very well behaved on every flight. This is in part very good luck, but also due to the fact that I watch her constantly and head off any signs of crying before they start. I’ll hold and feed her as often as it takes, even if it means I rarely rest anymore on a plane. Many of the same people who’ve given me “the look” when boarding with an infant have complimented me after on her behavior. Brett also notes in his article: “Don’t just sit there while your baby screams. Do everything you can to calm him and people will be more understanding.” This is good advice, but does it really need to be said?! I’d never dream of sitting by idly while my child disturbed other people and I’m embarrassed by any other parents who would consider such behavior acceptable. Still, I recognize that even with the most watchful parents, sometimes a cranky baby is unavoidable but I hope that when/if that day comes, my fellow passengers will see how hard I’m trying to make the flight easier for all of us. Better still, if I anticipate a difficult age for my baby to fly, I’ll look into alternative methods of travel (or postpone until an easier time).

If we are going to ban babies from first class, or even segregate them from adults on all flights, why stop there? Why not a separate flight for the armrest-hogs, the obese, the incessant talkers, or the drunk and belligerent? I’d like a plane full of only frequent flyers, who know not to use their cell phone after the door closes, who don’t rush the aisles the minute the wheels touch down, who don’t recline their seats during drink service or bring smelly food (or nail polish) onto the plane. Start flights for only considerate, experienced travelers and you will find me in the front of the plane, with my baby on my lap.

For more about (considerate) travel with a baby, read my past “Knocked Up Abroad” stories here.

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Road testing the Cranky Concierge

I’ve known Brett Snyder aka The Cranky Flier for a few years now, so when he started up The Cranky Concierge, an itinerary management service this past month, I was naturally intrigued.

The concept goes sort of like this: most people hate booking and micromanaging their itineraries, figuring out where and how to catch and connect to their flights and lacing their travel together. As a self-professed airline nerd, The Cranky kind of digs it, and for a small fee, he’ll do it for you and help you along your way.

So on the way to Portland last weekend for a (lovely) drive through Oregon, I agreed to take it for a test run.

Below I’ve detailed how it went. Note that despite getting the service for free, I reserve no judgment.

Original flight: Chicago O’hare – Salt Lake City – Portland – Seattle – Minneapolis – Chicago O’hare.

Day of departure, Friday, October 16th.
Cranky sent me an email yesterday asking whether or not I wanted my updates via SMS or email. Even though I have a web-enabled iPhone I chose SMS, as I don’t have Gmail pushing email to my phone.This morning’s communication started off with a welcome e-mail, basically reminding me of my flight that day then giving me specific itinerary information including flights, flight numbers and weather along the route. The message even gets into the minute details naming arrival and departure gates, in my case telling me that when I landed in Salt Lake City that I needed to turn right out of the gate to get to my next flight.

At 3:30PM on my way to the bus, I received my first text message:

“Your plane will be arriving to Chicago at 5:49PM, so I would expect to be about 10 to 15 minutes late. Your gate is staying the same in Salt Lake (C3) – the plane is now in the air from Newark and will be gasp 20 minutes early – you should be on time.”

As predicted, my flight from O’hare left a few minutes late, though we arrived a little bit early due to some crafty routing by the pilots.

In Salt Lake City I was actually meeting up with my friend Al, who was starting in Santa Fe and who would be visiting Oregon with me. Pulling into the gate, I thought that I might surprise my friend getting off of the plane, so I sent an SMS to The Cranky asking where I could find his gate, including his rough flight plan and airline. Almost immediately I received a reply:

“Welcome to Salt Lake – Your friend landed at 822p WAY on the other side of the airport – gate E66 – flight 4696. BTW, your airplane [to Portland] has arrived, still at C3 departing on time”

By this time I was already on the move in the terminal headed for the Delta Skyclub, which when queried earlier, my concierge told me was just adjacent to terminal C. Locating Allan just short of the lounge, we pulled in for a few brief White Russians before heading down to C3 for our quick flight.

***

Two evenings later the cycle started again, with The Cranky sending me an SMS several hours before flight speaking on the weather, inbound flights and the general state of my upcoming journey. My unfortunate connections through Seattle and Minneapolis meant that I would be traveling through the night, but The Cranky stayed through Seattle, where he expertly guided me out of my gate, towards the S terminal and through the Skyclub. Before long, I was at work in Chicago with a massive headache, two hours of sleep and an internal promise to never fly a redeye from the west coast again.

***

Onto the real question though: was it worth it? I see the big advantage of the Cranky Concierge in the management of complex or multiple itineraries. Whenever problems arise at the airport, its always nice having someone behind a computer who knows the right numbers to call, where the closest Subway is and how to get you home fastest.

The term “complex” also depends on the traveler. One can image a first time passenger, lost at an airport who needs to know what gate to head to. On the other side of the coin, a million mile businesswoman could not have enough time to manage her itinerary and may only want to follow directions from her dedicated concierge. Both could easily find value in this service.

For a person like me who knows how to work the system and is used to micromanaging itineraries, it’s not as useful. At least not on this trip. I’ll admit that I’ve been in the situation once or twice where I’ve been stone cold lost and hungry at a strange airport in a strange part of the world and have needed help, but this weekend was not that time. Perhaps some day I’ll need that safety blanket.

***

Brett Snyder, aka The Cranky Flyer offers per trip itinerary management from The Cranky Concierge. Services include flight planning, flight monitoring, delay and cancellation assistance and post-trip dispute assistance. Prices range from $30 to $80 per trip, while a subscription-based service is in the works.

United to receive heavy fine for towel stuffed in engine

US Airways and United Airlines both stand to receive multi-million dollar fines from the FAA for maintenance violations.

US Airways’ violations include failing to inspect cargo doors and landing gear on a few plans and for failing to perform routine checks on dozen of others. US Airways responded quickly to the news, saying that the violations stem from the integration of their maintenance systems back from October 2008 to January of 2009, and that they are working on addressing the issues. The airline could be fined up to $5.4 million. This is the isn’t the first time US Airways has been fined this year either. In January, they were fined for violating rules involving oversold flights.

United’s violation is perhaps more troubling. The airline faces a $3.8 million fine for a single incident. In April 2008, a Boeing 737 returned to Denver after its engine shut down with low oil pressure. When the engine was inspected, two shop towels were inside. The towels “had been used to cover openings in the oil sump area” instead of the regulation caps. The towels were believed to have been there since December 2007, when maintenance was performed on the engine. This sounds terrifying, but according to the Cranky Flier website, it isn’t quite as scary as it sounds. The caps are only used during maintenance and then removed.

But still, the FAA is taking the incident seriously. “As a result of United’s failure to follow its maintenance procedures. . .it flew the aircraft on more than 200 revenue flights when it was not in an airworthy condition,” the FAA said in a statement.

[via ABC News Denver]

Southwest Airlines to Offer In-flight WiFi?

Sister-site Engadget got a tip from an inside source that a Southwest Airlines company presentation twice mentioned that “Inflight wireless internet connectivity” was being looked into for the low-cost carrier. Personally, I’d welcome the opportunity to do some in-flight browsing. When I fly domestically, nine times out of ten it’s with Southwest, and I wouldn’t hesitate shelling out a few extra bucks for Internet access — especially since their ticket rates are so competitive.

Southwest Airlines has seen a decline in numbers this quarter, and they’ve been announcing new features and re-evaluating old ones in an attempt to “generate more money without destroying what Southwest stands for,” said the Cranky Flier. Southwest has a high reputation to stand up to, but — unless they really screw up by changing things like A-B-C boarding — I’m not too worried. Bring on the wireless Internet!