Hostility Meets Many Babies On A Plane

Delta and Southwest are among the more child-friendly airlines, Scott McCartney, travel editor and "Middle Seat" columnist for the Wall Street Journal, tells Guy Raz. But as airlines face growing financial challenges, families flying with small children are seeing even more aggravation and fewer amenities than regular customers.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you fly with small children - perhaps you did in the past day or so - then you know how absolutely miserable it could be for you, for the airlines, for your fellow passengers. And I'm not talking about plying your 2-year-old with treats to keep him from screaming but rather the hostile environment on some airlines when you show up with the little ones. Some airlines no longer offer priority boarding for families with small children, and increasingly, travelers are finding that they can't even get seats next to their kids. Or when they do, they're usually in the back of the plane. This is known informally in the industry as the baby ghetto. Well, for some coping methods, Scott McCartney, who writes "The Middle Seat" column for The Wall Street Journal, joins us now. Scott, welcome.

SCOTT MCCARTNEY: Good to be with you, Guy.

RAZ: I just flew to Boston with our 2-year old and our 7-month-old, and it occurs to me to ask you when did it actually start to become miserable to fly with kids? Is this a recent thing?

MCCARTNEY: You know, it was never easy, but 20 years ago, when my kids were babies, there were a lot more amenities. You could use the bulkhead seats, which gave you more space. There were ovens on airplanes, so the helpful flight attendants could warm up the formula. You did get priority boarding. You didn't have to pay extra for a seat assignment. And what's happened now just with baggage restrictions, TSA restrictions - just in June, American Airlines changed its stroller policy, so strollers have to be small.

If they're going to be gate-checked, you can't bring a jogging stroller. Just as all travelers have seen, more and more aggravation, and I think it's gotten worse for families progressively.

RAZ: All right. So what about seat assignments? Because I have experiences where I've had one of my kids in, like, a middle seat, five rows away. My wife is three rows back with an infant on her lap. And then, you know, you get on a plane, and you just start negotiating with fellow passengers to see if they'll switch seats with you. Why don't airlines make it easy to just sit together?

MCCARTNEY: Well, I think it's a numbers game. What's happened is airlines have catered more and more to full-fare passengers, to elite-level customers, so they're prereserving large chunks of the cabin for those people. Now, several airlines are adding fees for what they call choice seats or preferred seats, and those are seats at the front of the cabin and generally the front half of the cabin. And so what you're left with is a limited number of seats on any given flight, and people reserve them quickly in advance.

And if you don't book early enough, you're not going to get seat assignments. So then, you show up at the gate or you check in 24 hours ahead of time, you're scrambling to get seat assignments. All that's left may be middle seats scattered throughout the cabin, and that's what hits families hard. And then, you've got a 3-year-old sitting between two strangers, and all you've got for leverage are middle seats to try and trade with people. And I think most people are willing to accommodate, especially if they don't want to sit next to a 3-year-old and take care of them for the next four hours.

RAZ: Yeah, exactly. I was sitting next to my son in a seat that was not mine, and when the person arrived to sit. He likes his juice and his raisins every, you know, 15, 20 minutes, and if he spills, here are some napkins, and they happily change seats with me.

MCCARTNEY: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Is there an airline that that is better - tends to be better with families?

MCCARTNEY: You know, that's a really tough question. I think you can find faults in the policies of all airlines. Southwest Airlines, in some ways, is very accommodating but, in other ways, extremely rigid about rules - about lap children. You have to have a birth certificate that you produce at the gate if you're going to claim that your child is 2 years or younger. The lap-child policy, if your child turns 2 while you're traveling, United Airlines is going to make you buy a seat for the return portion of a trip.

So it's hard. One of the - I do like some of the things that Delta does. They have kid-friendly meals for purchase on flights - peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, things like that. I think that's a really nice touch. And they haven't gotten as rigid with their stroller gate-check policy. So Delta gets some kudos for some of those things.

RAZ: Scott McCartney, thanks.

MCCARTNEY: Good to be with you.

RAZ: Scott McCartney writes "The Middle Seat" column for The Wall Street Journal. He joined us from Dallas.

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