Is traveling with children a blank check for an airline to torture you?

Flying with a near-toddler, I have now discovered, is a special traveler’s torture designed to make you run screaming off into the woods, tearing your hear out, and subsequently keep your feet stubbornly planted on your home turf until your kids are old enough to, say, buy you a bottle of vodka. Or at least pay for their own tickets.

(To anyone on US Airways flight 965 yesterday who heard the kid screaming for regular 20- to 45-minute sessions the entire flight, I extend my deepest apologies. But you all renewed my faith in humanity. Thank you for your patience and good humor.)

Usually I leave recommendations to the airlines up to people like one of my favorite bloggers, Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot. But on a 6-hour sardine session from Philadelphia to San Francisco yesterday, I came up with a few of my own.

Airplanes need a family section. I’ve heard this idea mumbled about off and on for the last few years, and of course I understand that airlines are in a cutthroat business and being hit hard by the economy and can’t spent a single extra farthing right now. But. After yesterday, I would seriously consider paying extra to fly on a plane that had a family section. Somewhere with a slightly different seating pattern, a circle, say, so there’s free space in the middle for kids to sit, play, nap, and throw tantrums. My son had very little tantrum-throwing space, and kept hitting his head on the metal bolting the seats to the floor.

This section could have sound-proof glass, which would make everyone else on the plane a whole lot happier. My sister thinks a row of Johnny Jump-Ups would go down well, but we nixed that idea on account of the liability insurance (a concussion with every bout of turbulence!).

The kids would be able to keep one another entertained — they really do that, you know, hard as it is to believe — and, more importantly, the parents could keep them away from a) everyone else on the plane, and b) everyone else’s stuff.

That’s a serious problem. One of the only ways to keep walking/crawling little ones quiet is to, surprise, let them walk and crawl. They like to move. A lot. And what did my son discover when he trotted up and down the aisle yesterday? That our flight was packed to the gills with overweight businessmen. Who had laptops! With keyboards! And were wearing glasses! And had accessible plastic water bottles! Those are my son’s four favorite things to play with. Do you have any idea what fun it was pulling his hands away from adding gibberish to someone’s business report every other seat? (That said, those business reports looked incredibly dull. It’s a wonder how much money of our economy goes into such things rather than, say, growing spinach. Gibberish might have improved them a bit.)

On the way back to the bathroom to change his diaper, my son dove in and snatched the glasses right off someone’s face. The poor guy was fast asleep and it startled the heck out of him. The airlines would be doing everyone a favor by entrapping the children in a special laptop-free, glasses-free, other people’s stuff-free area.

And then there’s the fasten-seatbelt sign. I’m sick of the fasten-seatbelt sign. An increasing number of flights seem to leave it on permanently just for the heck of it. I know that’s probably not true. I know that 90 seconds of turbulence on the 6-hour flight yesterday could have been much worse. I also know that my son was probably expressing the repressed frustration of every adult on the plane by screaming repeatedly at his entrapment in the seat area.

Do we really all need to stay in our seats all the time? Because watching my son yesterday made me think that being stuck in an airline seat, unable to walk around at will, for many hours at a time, is akin to the ancient Chinese water-drop torture (where victims were bound to a chair that allowed water to drip on their foreheads at random, maddening intervals, eventually driving them insane).

Speaking of seats, the whole leg room issue has gotten beyond out-of-control. My husband, just over 6 feet tall, already has to scissor his legs sideways to keep his knees from giving the person in front of him a bad shiatsu massage. How am I supposed to keep a cranky, uncomfortable 21-month-old from kicking the seat in front of us when it’s two inches away? I did my best (sorry, seat 22C), but I’d need a full-body straightjacket to be truly effective, or fold him practically in half.

There are any number of websites handing out advice on how to travel with children, including this one (and I enjoyed a funny-yet-practical twist from Uptake), but tips on toys, distractions, and snacks can only go so far when there is simply not enough room to go around. Kids require space, just like adults, and they don’t have the sort of internal controls adults have to deal with being confined and bored for hours on end. Any airline could have flocks of relieved, loyal parents clamoring to get on board.

Because yesterday is not an experience I’d want to repeat again in a hurry. Right now, this travel addicted mother thinks home is starting to look pretty good.

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