Dear Airline: an open letter from family travellers

Dear Airline, 

We’re flying with you today—me, my three kids, and my husband—and the only reason we chose you is because you had tickets which were slightly cheaper than the other guy.  Given the fact that both experiences would have been equally bad,  a small difference in fare was the only deciding factor for us.

And although we may not account for as much of a yield per ticket as your business travellers do, there are a lot us, we are traveling more frequently than ever before,  and we book in advance. 

We are the families who travel.

We’re predictable. We're loyal when you treat us right.  

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Walt Disney seems to appreciate that but you, dear Airline, still do not.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  And I’m going to let you in on a little secret—we’re willing to pay for a good experience.  (Walt already seems to know that part).

We’re not looking for roller coasters or non-stop thrills.  We’re simply looking for understanding and clever ways to help make the trip less stressful for all of us.  

It is exceptionally hard, even in good circumstances, to fly with young children.  Ask any parent getting ready to go on holiday with their family, and they’ll tell you that it’s beyond stressful.  That airplane trip is the thing they look forward to least.  

It’s not only the actual flight that is the biggest stressor.  True, it’s hard enough to be on the receiving end of sneers and the general aura of unwelcomeness from other passengers, but our stress actually starts the moment we book our flight.

It’s those other pesky details which swim madly around our minds:

  • Will we all be seated together?

  • Will our carseat will be allowed on board?

  • What will my extremely picky 2 year old eat during the 6+ hour flight?

  • Will there be enough entertainment or will I have to break out into my Sesame Street routine for the entire flight, complete with laughing, singing, and juggling?

  • Will I be allowed my carry-on filled with roughly 40kg of books, toys, and heathy snacks for my 12 month old who will be insisting on walking the aisles before the bell for 10,000 feet goes off?

  • Will some mean guy tell me off because my child is crying?

  • DO I HAVE ENOUGH DIAPERS?????

Yeah. We’re looking forward to that holiday but we are FOR SURE not looking forward to that flight.

It didn’t used to be like that.  Airplane trips were special when I was growing up.  One actually looked forward to the journey.

Therefore, in the spirit of delivering market research at the lowest cost you’ve ever had, and because I truly believe that things can be better for all of us, I’ve reached out to traveling moms, dads, and well known family travel experts for their advice on what would make air travel for families not only tolerable but memorable (in other words, here’s how you can build a loyal base).

 

1. Seat Everyone together! 

This is probably at the top of the wishlist of every single parent. Why on earth do airlines not promise to seat families together? I have traveled on long international flights alone with my three children and it is always “we’ll do our best to seat you all together”. I can tell you that Mr Smith in row 33 does not want to be cutting up my 4 year old’s dinner or holding the vomit bag for her during turbulence while I am sitting three rows behind him.  Yeah, I’d like that.  Sure.  But Mr. Smith, not so much. 

My good friend recounts a story where she and her two kids were flying business class, and her 9 year old was seated across the plane, literally on the other side from her and her 1 year old son—with the middle row in-between her and her daughter.  All because a passenger refused to move her seat.  My friend asked the flight attendant if her daughter would be a priority when the oxygen masks drop down.  Crickets.  And what had to happen?  After the flight, the “clean up” team from customer service had to come in and save the day and convince my friend to please continue to fly with them and how ever so sorry that happened, and my gosh we’re just not sure what happened there.  It cost them a lot to be so silly.

Jessie from Wandering Educators thinks its also “ridiculous to split families up” and Eileen from Families Go! believes that “people who book together should be seated together.”  Not having to pay to guarantee seats together is a must for Corinne from Have Baby Will Travel. Michelle, contributor at Trekaroo even goes even further with her suggestion of having specific  family sections in planes. 

Not being seated near your kids is not only an inconvenience to the parent and to the adult who has to sit near the child who isn’t theirs, but it’s also putting that child at risk int he case of an emergency.  

This should be a no-brainer, Airlines. 

Please, guarantee families who book together can sit together.

 Photo by  Steven Coffey  on  Unsplash

 

2. Watch what you put on those meal trays

Kids are not adventurous eaters by nature, and eating strange food at 32,000 feet doesn’t make the situation any better.  Parents worry that their kids won’t have enough to eat (and the problem is not just about being in the airplane, it’s about the 1 to 2 hours after landing while we’re going through customs and waiting for luggage.  It is simply NOT A GOOD TIME when your kid is both tired and hungry).  While you can’t please everyone, there are a couple of things airlines could do to make things better. 

First of all, let’s just make the actual ordering of the kids’ meals a little easier for everyone.  If you book a kid’s ticket the default meal should be a kid’s meal.  If I want an adult meal for my 2 year old, I can do a “special request.”  I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve completely forgotten to actually request a kids meal for my kids and I’ve gotten to watch the delight on their faces when they’ve opened up their adult meal covered in sauce with unrecognizable bits in it. And not a darn bit of it is “salvageable” because the (gasp) sauce touching it.

So let’s just assume that I was a perfect mother who would never forget to order a kids meal.  This is the part where I implore you to offer healthy choices.  It’s not about me thinking their little bodies will recoil in a fit when they encounter preservatives.  No.  It’s about the fact that the combination of a tray filled with nothing but starch and sugar and a confined space with no playground in sight just won’t end on a positive note.

Corrinne from Have Baby Will Travel pleads with airlines to have milk available on flights. Taking liquids through security is not an easy proposition these days.  It makes parents’ lives of very small kids a lot easier knowing there will be adequate milk on the flight. 

Eileen from Families Go! suggests keeping kids meals simple with a simple meat, vegetable and starch and no sauce!

Kirsten from Kids Are a Trip would love alternative options for snacks especially for kids. Could we do cheese, crackers, and grapes, perhaps?  But her real passion is for nuts to be taken off planes. With one of her kids allergic to nuts, and nut allergies becoming more and more common she is frustrated and worries obsessively that airlines still continue to serve nuts on board. 

 Photo by  Suhyeon Choi  on  Unsplash

 

3. Make sure that everyone in your organization (from the ticketing agent and the customer service agent to the flight crew) knows the airline’s rules for inflight accessories like car seats and sleep helpers.

It’s bad enough not being able to get an answer about which items are allowed inflight (or worse yet, getting conflicting answers) but my job is already hard enough and I don’t need to be educating the flight crew on your rules in addition to doing my own homework.  

May I suggest you not only train your staff, but give them an easy way to look it up in case they don’t know?

For example:  Are car seats allowed? Which ones? Do you allow sleep helpers like Plane Pal or CoziGo? What about the CARES Harness?

Ann from Kids Travel Books arrived on the plane with her car seat and printed proof  from her airline’s website and still had trouble bringing this approved seat onboard.  So after doing her homework, and taking the extra step of providing proof (which should have been unwarranted) she still got hassle.  The implicit message from you, dear Airline, to us parents?  “We simply do not care enough to educate ourselves on this particular topic.  Not our problem."

This. THIS is how you land on a parental “no fly” list.

Just for kicks, let’s look further into this particular topic.  Why, airlines?  WHY would you not allow approved car seats on the airplane? Why would you even not encourage parents to bring approved car seats?

Am I just being too logical here or are kids in car seats at least as safe in flight than being held in their parents arms? For goodness sake, they are strapped into a device that they cannot wiggle out of during takeoff and landing.  Secondly, little kids who are comfortable are happier, it's just as simple as that.  I see it as a win for the parents, a win for the cabin crew, and a win for fellow passengers.   It’s just a big trifecta of winning for all.  This is not that difficult.

And if, dear Airline, you’re nodding in violent agreement to my car seat theory, allow me to make a creative suggestion:  why not introduce a select number of seats which have the option to transform into a kid-compatible seat which could then be pre-booked?  Even for a fee!  Survey 100 parents and ask them to raise their hands if they don’t want to lug a car seat through the airport.  Perhaps even better—ask them while they’re lugging the seat to the gate.  We all know what the answer will be

 Car Seats on long haul flights mean my hands a free and my kiddo is happy and safe.

Car Seats on long haul flights mean my hands a free and my kiddo is happy and safe.

 

4. Provide interesting kids’ activities on long haul flights

Forty-eight hours before I fly you will find me not packing my own bag, but searching the aisles of my local shops looking for things that will hold my kids’ interest on the plane ride.  I cannot begin to count the hours of thinking and shopping for items designed to give me a few hours respite on the long plane rides.  Hours spent adding up the number of hours where the kids will be held captive without access to a place to run, or to electricity to charge their devices, or just the comforts of home.  Hours without naps.  Hours without regular mealtimes. 

The introduction of interactive entertainment systems on some international flights has been a great first step.  Nicole from Arrows sent Forth kindly requests a means to be able to charge their own devices in their own seats on the plane.  I second that.

But a kid can only do so many electronics, so it would be great to have some other activities.  Screen time is known to interfere with sleep patterns so we, along with many families, limit that.

The good news is that many airlines do offer some great options for kids.  Eric from Travel Babbo was highly impressed with Emirates Lonely Planet kids backpack filled with activities and books that kept his kids entertained for a good while on the flight.

Jessica from Bring the Kids felt that middle eastern airlines in general do a great job with kids.  Her kids were the happy recipient of window clings, colouring activities, and stickers. She knows that she doesn’t need to bring any “just in case” items to keep her kids happy which is a great way to cut down on hand baggage weight. 

Lindsay from Carpe-diem Our Way loved that Lufthansa brought out things to do for various age groups throughout the flight. This provides the element of anticipation and is a really smart strategy.  Most airlines pass out their kids’ items only at the beginning.

Jenna from This is My Happiness enjoyed the little travel bag filled with things to do that they received when flying Edelweiss. I know my own little one loves her bag she got from a flight with Swiss, and she still uses it 2 years later. 

Shirlene from Idelish loves Korean Air’s choice of kids’ activities - paper that can be painted with water and when dried, and used over again, just like the Aquadoodle you can buy in the shops. 

The bottom line is that both parents and children will be thrilled to receive kid-tested coloring, puzzles, and games that will be fun while on board and afterwards. For younger kids, mess free colouring such as Aquadoodle and Crayola’s washable markers, pencils, paper, stickers and window clings are all wonderful. Older kids enjoy brain teasers, sudoku, playing cards, puzzles, and games that they can play with each other. 

5. Under 2’s often need their own seat, especially on a long-haul flight

Please allow parents to easily book a seat for under 2’s. There are parents who see the value and who are willing to pay extra money to relieve themselves of the heavy burden of holding a toddler for 14 hours. I personally found that once they have outgrown the airline bassinet it is much easier to keep them (and us) happy if they have their own seat. When our kids were tiny we’d bring our car seat along or use a Cares Harness and they were then able to play and sleep a whole lot better. Plus it must be safer, especially with unpredictable turbulence. I personally could not believe it when Shirlene from Idelish told me that she has  previously flown with an airline who refused to let her book a seat for her child under 2 years old.  What?

Credit where credit is deserved:  a big shout out to Air New Zealand for their innovative Skycouch™ making the economy section more comfortable with the ability to purchase three seats together which, when the armrests are folded out of sight, make a flat flexible space.  And good news, in 2018 they will also have the infant harness.  They did their homework!

 Under 2 and enjoying her space on a flight to Singapore with Swiss.

Under 2 and enjoying her space on a flight to Singapore with Swiss.

6. Kids are frequent flyers, treat them as such!

With more and more kids traveling these days, frequent flyer programs need to stop treating them like second class citizens.  Eric (Travel Babbo) has received coupons for free alcoholic drinks when his kids reached 75K miles from one airline.  Lindsay from Carpe-diem Our Way simply asks that when under 2’s have their own purchased seat that they are be able to join the frequent flyer programme and start earning miles.   

Pamela, contributor here at Simple Family Travel is frustrated with Lufthansa not allowing kids living in Switzerland to join their Jet Friends program which would allow the child’s mileage account be exempt from a miles expiration date until they reach the age of 18. She is thrilled with Virgin Atlantic’s concept of Household Miles, which allows the parent who has reached Gold status to receive credit for the miles that their kids have flown.  

Kirsten from Kids Are a Trip would love to see her kids receive special recognition when they reach certain mileage milestones. 

 Kids are traveling more and more, so why can't the under 2's earn miles? Photo by  Paul  on  Unsplash

Kids are traveling more and more, so why can't the under 2's earn miles? Photo by Paul on Unsplash

7. Make families feel welcome

The little gestures go a long way for parents. 

To illustrate that, Ann from Kids Travel Books made a point to say that she loves Lufthansa’s welcome video on board which makes it clear that children are welcome! A nod or a smile that tells us that you understand, going just a little bit further to make the child more comfortable, and as much empathy as you can muster would make us feel more welcome.

Pamela from Simple Family Travel never fails to be impressed with Virgin Atlantic for that reason.  “They’ve always gone above and beyond to allow me to store my stroller directly in the cabin of the aircraft on long haul flights.  You cannot imagine how helpful that is when your 3 year old has fallen asleep and you are juggling the child and the cabin baggage when exiting the plane.  Not having to go all the way to baggage to collect the stroller or simply being able to pop the kiddo in the stroller instead of waiting plane side for what seems like hours is just such a welcome perk.”  If passengers can take bags on board, why should they not be able to take strollers on board as long as they are of a certain dimension?

Your friendliness goes such a long way.  We’re going to have to face enough of those disapproving looks from other passengers traveling without kids, so please, be on our team.  I’ve had passengers ask to change seats before they have even given my kids a chance—which hurts because we’ve spent a lot of time and love getting them where they are now.  Which is to say, they are well behaved on planes.  

And if you see my kids behaving well, don’t wait until the end of the flight to give me a compliment. Let a parent know that they’re doing a good job. It contributes to a amicable and cooperative atmosphere on the flight, and leaves me with a good feeling about you, dear Airline. 

 Photo by  Hanson Lu  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

So I raise my glass to you, dear Airline, for all of the improvements you’ve made and for those that are to come.  Here’s to the day when we can all look forward to taking long flights with our kids!

Yours Sincerely ,

Kristin Reinhard - Simple Family Travel on behalf all traveling families

PS. Watch out hotels, you’re next!

Thanks to the following Family Travel Experts for their input

  1. Eric from - Travel Babbo

  2. Kirsten from Kids are a Trip

  3. Jessica from Bring the Kids

  4. Jenna from This Is My Happiness

  5. Michelle contributor at Trekaroo

  6. Eileen from Familes Go!

  7. Shirlene from Idelish

  8. Lindsay from Carpe Diem Our Way

  9. Ann from Kids Travel Books

  10. Jessie from Wandering Educators

  11. Corinne from Have Baby Will Travel

  12. Nicole from Arrows Sent Forth

  13. Pamela from Simple Family Travel