Kid-free flights? How about family-friendly culture?

Ever been stuck on a plane near a screaming child? Ever wanted to give that child (or their parents) a piece of your exhausted, legroom-deprived mind? Ever wished airlines could create child-free seating sections, or even entire adults-only flights? You’re not alone. Apparently, demand for such flights has increased lately, and the NYT posits that if some enterprising airline were to capitalize on that demand, we could soon see the birth of children-free seating sections or even a children-free airline.

An article in the weekend Times assesses the demand for and likelihood of child-free seating and flights. The article focuses more on the apparently childless people who are bothered by the screaming kids than on the parents who are probably bothered by the dirty looks being thrown at them by annoyed fellow passengers. There’s a quote from a man who started a Facebook group in support of child-free flights, in which he tells a story about bad parents who don’t make an effort to keep their kids quiet. There’s also some discussion of how difficult it would be to implement such a program, as child-free sections would necessitate the separation of families and child-friendly flights would likely be scheduled at inconvenient times, essentially punishing parents for traveling with children.

But I could not agree more with blogger Madame Noire, who is also quoted in the article. She writes, “do childless passengers really think it’s all gravy when parents can’t calm down their screaming child? It’s just as stressful for the parent as it is for the child and the other passengers, but it’s a fact: kids cry.”

There is a distinct tinge of guilt to the dread that I feel when I board a plane and see I’ve been placed in the infant section. Which happens almost every time I fly between the west coast of the US and the east coast of Australia. It’s a fourteen hour flight, and it’s incredibly unpleasant, even without a small child screaming next to you or behind you (or both). So when I arrive at my seat and look around to see infants or toddlers seated near me, I’m not exactly thrilled. Kids are loud and don’t know how to behave on planes, and they kick your seat and they scream through the night and why didn’t I pack more Valium?

Then I think about my father, who can no longer bear the sight of the book Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, because on one memorable transpacific flight, when my sister was a toddler, he read it aloud to her over and over and over again to keep her fussing and crying. I think about the seemingly endless supply of coloring books, magnetic board games, books, Walkmans, tapes and batteries that my parents used to pack in my carry-on luggage when we would fly from Sydney to New York. And I feel guilty for my inner grumbling about being seated near children and their parents. Because that blogger is right: kids cry on airplanes, and it’s no easier for their parents than it is for the other passengers. Despite the fact that my parents stocked us to the gills with things to do, and read Hairy Maclary over twenty times, we still cried. Kids cry on airplanes, and get restless, and move around and need to be distracted from the fact that fourteen hours is a bloody long time.

Childless adults are exactly the same, with the exception of the crying. But airplanes are set up for childless adults, with movies, alcohol, magazines, shopping and other things to keep them distracted and to stop them from getting restless. So we could keep on parent-shaming and ostracizing people who dare to travel with their children. We could keep complaining about the fact that a three-year-old hasn’t yet been socialized not to loudly express her discomfort, fear or desire to get the hell out of this confined odd-smelling space. Or we could think of ways to accommodate parents with kids and help them to share space in a way that is more comfortable for everyone involved. Either that, or put noise-canceling headphones in every seat pocket and sleeping pills on every tray table.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • beckeck

    from an economic perspective, it’s actually more pro-family to create a special airline without kids than it would be to create a special “kid-friendly” airline. think about it. if you value being on a kid free airline, you’ll pay more, rather than if it fell on families to find kid-friendly airlines…

    so, i’m not so sure I’m really against that idea. at worst it will do nothing, at best it will provide a place for anti-child peeps to go so that mainstream flights will be more pro-children/fam. and the cost will be on the anti’s, not the families. i think

    • Jasmin

      That makes sense to me. Pro-family flights should stay the norm. It seems more fair to ask anti-child people to go on a different flight, rather than forcing families to. Forcing children onto special pro-family flights sounds more discriminatory than providing optional child-free flights for people who would voluntarily choose them.

  • Kate

    To me, the issue is not whether the child is screaming, it’s whether the responsible adults are trying to get the child to stop screaming. In general, I may cringe when I hear a screaming kid, but I don’t get angry about it. I understand that people have kids, that they need (and have the right) to go places with those kids, and that sometimes the kids scream, cry, or otherwise behave inappropriately. A child acting that way doesn’t know any better; they’re not being rude or inconsiderate, they’re just being a kid. But adults DO know better. An adult who is responsible for a child is responsible for at least TRYING to help the child act considerately toward others (as your parents did by reading Hairy Maclary for 14 hours). A mother yakking on a cell phone while her 8 year old daughter throws a screaming meltdown at the grocery store (as I was lucky enough to witness once) deserves all the dirty looks thrown at her, just as much as would a pompous yuppie complaining loudly about a well-behaved child in a restaurant.

    I do think it is completely reasonable to have certain events, times, etc., in public places in which children are not present. E.g., I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a bar or restaurant to not allow children in after a certain time in the evening, or for a museum or movie theater to have certain specific days/times/shows that are designated as young-child-free. It may be something they can’t help, but the reality is that screaming children ARE a distraction, and they can be disruptive, and in certain circumstances, it’s just not appropriate or considerate to have them around. I don’t know whether that should really extend to airlines, though.

    • Amelia

      Parents tend to try all sorts of things to make kids shut up. Some of those things are not responsible – like shoving their mouths full of sweets. It’s likely that a constant supply of sweets is going to cause problem when the sweets run out, when the kid is sick of them, when the kid is hyperactive from too much sugar.

      The mother yakking on her cell phone was doing the exact right thing, depending on your tantrum management philosophy. Ignoring tantrums is supposed to be the best way of getting them to stop in the long run – particularly actively ignoring them, like showing the kid you’re so uninterested in their tantrum that you will talk on the phone or continue with your chores.

      Another problem is that parents are mortified by their naturally noisy little ones and will try not to be noticed. When people hate you for having a noisy child, you’re probably not going to really want to call attention to yourself by being the loud voice reading hairy maclary books – but props to those who are brave enough.

      I was nannying for family who took their little ones and me on the plane. The parents were too embarrassed to call attention to themselves and the fact that the object of people’s irritation was their responsibility. So it was me who took the baby and walked the aisles up and down for half the flight, getting in other people’s way to calm the child and get him to sleep. People gave me dirty looks then for blocking the way to the toilet. It’s a no-win situation for some parents. And shaming them does not help.

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    Those headphones are a life saver! On the one hand, kid-free sounds neat. But on the other, there’s nothing like a sweet child to remind you why you’re flying on this plane or that things aren’t so sucky.

  • nazza

    It needs to come down to a simple matter of fairness. Often people with kids make, or are perceived to make unreasonable demands. Sometimes people without kids are insensitive to those who have them. So long as that was kept in mind, we could have a family-friendly culture.

  • J

    I used to fly a lot, and for the most part, kids didn’t bother me. Sure they’re loud and restless, but I have earplugs and eye shades and music and distractions of all sorts.

    And 99% of parents were mortified and stressed out and doing what they could to calm their kids down, and I really just felt sympathy for their situation. I can’t imagine having to try to keep a kid calm and entertained on a long flight. Eek!

    But every once in a while, I’d run into those parents that could tune their kids out, and honestly didn’t seem to care if their kid was kicking my seat or pulling my hair (yes, that happened). In the end, there really isn’t anything to be done about that small number of people, but they tend to stand out. They’re the ones we really remember.

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    The obvious counter-argument to “it’s just as hard on the parents as on the childless adults” is that the childless adults presumably made an informed decision to not have children because they were unable or unwilling to deal with the negative parts of being a parent, and shouldn’t we be respectful of their very important life choice?

    “We could think of ways to accommodate parents with kids and help them to share space in a way that is more comfortable for everyone involved” is pretty difficult because the air travel industry operates on fantastically tight margins and customers are extremely price-sensitive – if one airline spends money to come up with more comfortable space for children, travelers without children are going to naturally migrate in droves to other, cheaper airlines. If you can think of a solution that doesn’t cost any money or increase ticket prices you are a much better business analyst than I am (which admittedly is a low bar).

    • Laura Tanenbaum

      @ Sam: No. To paraphrase the great Dr. B. a decision not to have children means that you don’t have to feed them in the middle of the night, change their diapers, or help them with their homework. It absolutely does not mean you have a right to spaces free of children, just as no one has a right to a space free of any type of person they might find difficult.

      Not to mention that, even if you don’t have children, you were one, and you’re probably glad that you weren’t locked inside 24/7 to shield the public from your potentially annoying behavior.

      • Sam Lindsay-Levine

        Don’t we, generally speaking, think that everyone should be able to live in spaces free of people they find difficult? Isn’t that what manners and etiquette are for? I don’t know if speaking of ‘rights’ here is helpful or just confusing, but if you were seated on public transport and another passenger was distressing or harassing you, I would say that is a situation that ideally you should not have to suffer through.

        I think maybe you were spoiling for a fight or something here, because I did not say and do not come even close to believing that children should be locked inside 24/7. I just thought that it’s possible to empathize with both sides of the situation and try to act with respect towards all.

      • Di

        Expecting a child under 3 to travel on an aeroplane at an age when they cant understand why they’re being put through such a traumatic experience, is in my opinion tantamount to abuse. In addition, some people travel a great deal with their career and have to use that time for professional work so valium and ipods are not a solution. Incidently, I teach music to preschool children and can assure you they can be taught not to scream and to communicate well.

  • Barncat

    As a childfree person, I can tell ya: if the kiddo’s bug ya that much, a little lorazepam, an eyeshade, a pillow, and noise cancelling head phones plugged into an ipod make the whole world disappear, screaming included.

    Yes, parents who don’t deal with their screaming child are a pain (the parents moreso than the kids!), but I can handle it on a flight, as they are long enough to let me sleep, and generally safe enough that I don’t have to worry about being assaulted or have my stuff stolen.

  • Jane AZ

    Childfree world traveler here. You know what helps with screaming kids? Getting over it. It takes practice but it can be done. Remember that the kids are largely in excruciating ear pain. You’d be screaming, too.

    Also, don’t sit by the potty.


    Thank you for this; it’s helping to calm my fears about next week. I’m going to be flying with my almost 5 year old son and I’ve been stressing beyond belief about it. I intend on loading both my phone and my iPod Touch with child-friendly games, taking coloring books and crayons and books, and miscellaneous other things to occupy him. He also has some problems going on, which are currently not diagnosed (we’re working on that) but he’s a bit more difficult to handle than the average 5 year old. So if you’re sitting on your flight and getting irritated with the obnoxious little blonde boy next week just remember, his mother is trying like hell to handle him (and balance a full-time job, full-time school, among other things, and the end of the semester is far too close) and his behavior is not due to a lack of parenting.

  • Ms. Smarty Pants

    My problem with kids on an airplane has always been the parents, not the kids.

    I’ve taken many 15-hour flights next to screaming infants. One time, the kid only stopped screaming after 2 hours of non-stop misery to look at and then smile at me, at which point his father promptly picked the child up again, handed him to me, and said, “play with auntie for a while now” before leaning his seat back to take a nap.

    Seriously. And this sort of thing has happened more than once. Not all parents, probably not even most, but enough that it’s a problem.

    The other thing is diaper changes. I have been on several flights that filled up with the smell of poop and baby wipes because the parents near my row decided it would be a good idea to change the baby’s diaper at their seat rather than in the toilet on the changing table.

    Honestly, I don’t mind children, I find that they usually get a bad rap and most of the time they’re perfectly pleasant on flights, with a few notable exceptions. But I wouldn’t mind a child-free flight or a child-free zone on a plane (unrealistic, as there’s no buffer between a zone with kids and a zone without one, so you could have a row full of babies right behind the child-free section), and I’d bet it’s not only childless adults who want some child-free travel time. There’s probably plenty of parents out there who wouldn’t mind a flight free from squalling babies and screaming toddlers.

  • Napoleoninrags

    While part of me can appreciate the back and forth on this issue, a bigger feminist part of me knows that these kind of proposed child-free environments are overwhelmingly prejudicial towards women who, more often than not, are likely to be the “parent” in question.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you for posting a different viewpoint about this. Before I read this article, I would have been ALL OVER child-free airlines, as I really really hate disruptive kids in public. It’s hard for me to sympathize at all, partly because I don’t like or want kids period, and partly because I wasn’t allowed in public as a small child until I could sit still and be quiet. My mother said she didn’t want to listen to other people’s kids, so she wasn’t going to make them listen to her’s.

    Your article reminded me of my flights to and from Japan this summer. I sat next to not one, but two children. One was two and the other somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 12. They were both great–quiet, polite, well-behaved. I admit to thinking “Oh, great!” when I saw them, but your article reminded me that not all children are terrors. (Even if on one connecting flight I had not one but two screamers in the rows before and behind me.)

  • jenna pinkham

    I don’t see the difference between a child-free section of the plane and the first-class section. Those who don’t want to listen to the inevitable screaming (and can afford to pay extra) don’t have to, and there isn’t any inconvenience put on the parent.

    • Brett K

      I agree. The creation of adults-only spaces doesn’t necessarily mean the exclusion of children from society. Obviously family-friendly flights should (and, I think, will always be) the norm, but what’s wrong with creating a small adults-only section on a plane, or even scheduling the occasional adults-only flight? People who have serious issues with loud noise and other disruptions would probably be willing to pay a bit more, and that might allow family-friendly flights and sections to devote more resources to making their flights comfortable for kids as well. If anything, that could make flights more child-friendly, not less.

      Also, a lot of people are really sensitive to noise, smells, etc. – this is an accessibility issue for adults as well as kids. It’s not so much a problem for me now, but a few years ago I had serious anxiety issues that could be triggered by pretty much anything, especially loud noises. Ending up on a flight with a screaming baby (which happened to me surprisingly often – just my luck) would leave me anxious and upset for days. A separate adults-only, quiet, perfume-free section would have been a lifesaver, and I think that creating one would be an easy way to allow those people to fly comfortably without excluding anyone.

  • Shannon Drury

    Rude people will be rude, whether they lug children along with them or not. Frustrated kids will scream to get their needs met, whether they are on a plane or not. I’m not sure that different flight schedules will alleviate an age-old problem.

  • S. goch

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect anyone who has ever flown with clogged sinuses/ear canals experiences a sudden burst of sympathy for all the small children on their future flights. I literally COULD NOT STOP crying because I was in so much pain. (I may have been quieter than a screaming baby, but I don’t know, because I couldn’t hear anything!)

    It’s not that I never get irritated at Mr. Yelling Toddler two seats up, but I do think this entry made an important point when it mentioned that, “[A]irplanes are set up for childless adults, with movies, alcohol, magazines, shopping and other things to keep them distracted and to stop them from getting restless.” I would, based on my experiences with babysitting toddlers and flying (separately) question the assumption that _any_ flights are “pro-family” — they are just not actively “anti-family” at this point. For crying out loud, would it truly be economically unfeasible to put a coloring book or a kid’s magazine in the back of the seat pouch too? There is really _nothing_ provided to entertain a little kid with. Nor have I ever seen recommendations posted in an airline magazine for getting your small child to pop its ears, which would surely decrease the amount of screaming.

    Beyond that, I register a nasty “squick” feeling anytime someone says, “I don’t mind kids, I just mind BAD PARENTS WITH KIDS.” The space of an airline flight (even a 15-hour one) is not enough to judge anyone’s parenting skills. Flying today pretty much sucks, and if you’re not used to it, it shows.

    I think airlines should start handing out cheap foam earplugs before trying to institute child-free flights. . .

  • Liz

    I am childless, by choice, and I have long felt that there needs to be family sections on a plane. Not only will it de-stress the children and parents by giving them “family focused” options (such as play areas), I do not have to deal with the child that kicks the back of my seat for hours on end. When I am stuck in a small, confined space and the only response I get to telling the parents “can you please ask your child to stop kicking me” is an angry glare and some muttering about how I don’t understand children, I feel that I am being victimized because I am too “selfish” to want to sit in my cramped space with some modicum of comfort.
    To all the people who have good children/parenting skills: no, this is not about you. However, wouldn’t it be nice to reap some benefits? How about if there was a place your children could play with others and get some of their energy out on that 14 hour flight, and you don’t have to spend that time worrying about keeping your child a mummy so you don’t get glared at by those who travel without children?

  • Laura Karr

    It seems that many readers are mischaracterizing the issue here. A proposal for child-free flights is not about “blaming” children or their parents for disruptive behavior or about being family- or child-friendly (or not). The question is whether individuals who would prefer to fly without children present should have the ability to pay for this feature and whether they represent a large enough market segment to make such flights economically viable.

    I know that children are likely to cause disturbances on planes and that even the most attentive parents can sometimes do very little about it – often, it’s no one’s “fault” and there’s no blame to be had. This is exacly why I would jump at the chance to book a child-free flight if I could afford it. My desire to rest peacefully or get work done on the plane has nothing to do with my feelings about child travelers and their parents, and I think it’s a mistake to assume that travelers who would prefer to fly child-free have developed that preference based on some misguided “blaming” of restless children and their families.

  • kcar1

    Jeez… I can’t say I am a frequent flyer but I cannot think of any flight when I have ever been as bothered by children as some of these posters claim to be on a regular basis — except the one trip I took with my own children (2 and 3 at the time). It isn’t just the flying that is not family friendly, the whole experience isn’t, hence only the one trip, it is better to drive if it is an option. Between:

    (1) trying to get through check-in (international flight) and not lose one or both children,
    (2) waiting in the TSA line and not lose one or both children,
    (3) navigating security with 2 children, including disrobing winter apparel, de-shoeing, and re-shoeing and getting all of their snacks, drinks, etc. cleared through security,
    (4) waiting for your flight (delayed) in a grey, drab area with NOTHING to do,
    (5) then cramming them in tight quarters where there is nothing to do and they are supposed to be extra quiet instead of just regular quiet like everywhere else,
    (6) all while trying not to inconvenience, bother, or otherwise irritate fellow travelers…

    Add on top of that kids keyed up for a (relatively) novel experience and whatever this trip is about AND feeding off the parents’ anxiety/stress/frustration that comes with traveling with children AND the ear issues AND the fact that children are not naturally as sedentary as what air travel requires one to be (a 3 hr flight means minimum 1 hr traveling to/from airport, 20-40 min of waiting in various lines, 30-60 minutes waiting to board, 20-60 minuets waiting to take off, 3 hrs flying, 20 minute waiting to get off, 20 minutes waiting for luggage, it eats up a lot of one’s day, particularly if you are only awake for 10 hrs of 24) –> it is a wonder if there are any well-behaved flying children. It is exhausting just thinking about it.

    I have to agree with the other post, one’s decision to not have children does not entitle him/her to a 100% child-free existence. Yes, in your home, in your choice of activities, in your choice of work, you can select to have child-free areas. But in public, particularly forms of mass transit, you cannot expect that children will never be present and we’d all be greatly appreciative, the childbearing and that not-caring alike, if those anti-children people could focus on how much they appreciate their child-free areas rather complain when they have to share their precious space.

  • queerhummingbird

    thank you thank you for this post.

    a member of a childcare collective in baltimore wrote about kid’s noise here:

    it’s worth a read.