A pointy issue: Should children be allowed to fly first class?

An airline ban on children in premium seats is unlikely to spread but parents need to be considerate, writes Kavita Daswani

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 9:21am

Intellectual property lawyer Ted Marr was on an Air China flight from Beijing to Sydney recently, seated next to a woman with a baby in the first class/business cabin. Just as he was about to have his first sip of champagne, his neighbour decided to change her infant's dirty diaper - and she did so right there at the seat.

"The torture had started before we even took off," says Marr. Mercifully, he managed to switch to an empty seat elsewhere in the section.

Dane Steele Green, founder of US luxury travel firm Steele Travel, also recalls similar torment when he flew from Athens to New York with nine babies in a packed first-class cabin. "Once one started crying, they all did," Green says. "It lasted pretty much throughout the flight. It certainly does tarnish your experience of first class, regardless of how powerful your noise-cancelling headphones are."

The issue of whether minors - children under 12 - should be allowed in premium cabins on airlines has blazed up the blogosphere in recent months, with frequent fliers railing against having children sitting up front.

Their rationale: they pay extra for the peace and privacy that comes by not flying economy, so the last thing they want is restless toddlers running up and down the aisles, kids engaging in food fights, and colicky babies screaming. That sort of misery, they reason, belongs in the back of the plane. Susan Field, CEO of branding and communications firm Cohn & Wolfe-impactasia, confesses to getting "a little riled if there is a noisy child in business class and I'm trying to work or sleep".

Some airlines are taking note. Malaysian Airlines announced last year that children under 12 would be banned from the top deck of its A380 planes, where the business class is located. With the airline modifying its 747 jets to eliminate bassinets in first class, top-tier passengers who want to fly with their infants will have to figure something else out.

The decision was met with outrage by many, who described it as discriminatory. Other industry experts say it just doesn't make business sense. "If you have the means to travel that way, I certainly don't think having an infant or toddler with you is any reason to deny your seats," says Corinne McDermott, founder of the popular website, havebabywilltravel.com

Budget carrier Air Asia announced last month that children 12 years and under would be banned from the first seven rows to create a "quiet zone" on its planes, where seats cost more. But it is unlikely that other airlines will follow suit. A spokeswoman for Cathay Pacific said the airline "does not have a policy to restrict young passengers from travelling on specific classes".

For families travelling together, the new seating formats on many long-haul business or first-class cabins - pod-style and fairly insulated - can make interaction and oversight between a parent and child that much harder. A passenger who regularly flies business class between Hong Kong and Los Angeles says that once nestled in her seat, her five-year old was "completely invisible". "He could have slid off and wandered away and I wouldn't have known," she says.

Addressing such concerns, the Cathay Pacific spokeswoman says its business class includes two seats in the centre which are angled towards each another. This allows a guardian to keep an eye on - or have an easier time engaging with - a child. In Virgin Atlantic's ultra-luxe upper class cabin, where "suites" provide plenty of privacy, staff ensure that adults flying with minors are clustered together, so a three-year-old would not be placed alone.

Still, despite what airlines try to do to make the process as smooth as possible, incidents do arise when flying with young children - and they seem to be magnified in the rarefied air of the premium cabins.

"It's one thing when a small child is screaming because of the air pressure during take-off and landing," says Jim Mazza, chief operating officer of Travelsavers, an international marketing organisation affiliated with some 3,200 travel agencies around the world. "Everyone understands that. But I have an issue with kids tearing around the cabin and misbehaving. Usually, it's parents not managing their own children."

Having flown in premium cabins with her three- and five-year-old children since they were infants, Mazza's sister Nicole, who is the company's chief marketing officer, says parents should be considerate of other passengers. Changing dirty diapers on the seats is a no-no, as is ignoring a restless or cranky child.

"I don't want to spoil anybody else's experience on board," she says. "When my kids act up, I pick them up, walk to the back of the aircraft, and calm them down," she says. Nicole also makes sure the premium cabin's configuration allows her to be close to her children." I need to be sitting next to them," she says. "It's about making responsible parental decisions, instead of a parent thinking they're on vacation, and somebody else should deal with their children."

David and Tara Marino, co-founders of elegantfemme.com an international company that arranges seminars, retreats and online courses for women, feel the same. The couple travel regularly between the US and Europe with their two sons, aged nine and six, and always in business class. They have faced potentially embarrassing moments when the boys were younger, like they time they began bickering about who got to sit where.

But these were dealt with swiftly. "We handled the situation quickly with some treats and games," David recalls. "The next time we were prepared. We told them they had assigned seats, and they were not negotiable. If they were to cause a ruckus, we would fly coach on the way back. They didn't want to give up their TVs and the extra service, so they sat where we told them to sit.

"I have seen other children onboard that are loud and distracting," he says. "Business and first class passengers are not happy with these people at all. Kids are kids sometimes, but in the premium cabins you expect to have a nice, quiet, and enjoyable experience."

The demand for more seats for young passengers up front may be due to the rise in popularity of premium economy on many flights. Here, frequent fliers accustomed to high-end travelling don't feel they are sacrificing the perks, yet they can have more a family-friendly environment. Air New Zealand's premium economy has the feel of business class, EVA airline's Elite class is good, and Turkish Airlines Comfort class features seats with a 46-inch pitch (standard economy is typically 32 inches, business 76).

Still, travel consultant Green says that, as far as most airlines are concerned, a sale of a front-of-plane ticket is a good thing, irrespective of the passenger's age. "Once an airline says, 'Your kid can't travel', you lose the business of the adult. It's not a smart move. People with money have children, too."

Nevertheless, many of Green's regular clients who only travel first class when flying alone will concede to going to the back of the plane when travelling with smaller children. They don't want other premium passengers to be disturbed by crying or fussing.

But for those that do choose to sit in the front, Green says, "Passengers can't avoid it, and neither can the airline."