The shortsightedness of strangers: Delta’s wrongheaded boarding policy

Sometimes change requires a little rant. In this case, change over an obscure and confusing position taken by Delta Airlines, which is currently sucking Northwest into its maw (or vice versa).

I thought it was a fluke last May. I thought I was mis-hearing, that I was too distracted traveling alone with a toddler to catch the announcement. But this time I know what I heard, and I asked to make certain.

Delta Airlines now boards First Class passengers and Elite members before calling families and people in wheelchairs. This policy, which they have every right to pursue, makes me just a little sick.

Some of you might think it doesn’t matter so much. But try it sometime, being a parent or parents herding small children and babies, with all the damn strollers, diaper bags, car seats, sippy cups, beloved and droppable toys, and life-saving crackers onto a sardine can of a plane and hoping nobody goes too crazy.

Or try being in a wheelchair, disabled or shaky or injured or elderly, it doesn’t matter. You need a little extra time to maneuver and manage yourself and your things, and personally I’d prefer it without a lot of already seated, buckled, iPod-listening people rolling their eyes at the minor delay I’m causing them.

I might not like flying with my toddler so much, but there’s relief when I can finally herd him into the airplane and stop chasing him several miles all over the airport while trying to squeeze in water bottle filling and — heaven forbid — time to pee. At least once he’s on the plane he’s contained and sometimes even entertained.

Delta might not have thought much about this decision before they acted on it. Maybe they were trying to please their frequent flyers and higher paying customers in a shaky financial time. I get that.

But the message it sends is clear: If you’re traveling with kids, or need extra help or time getting on the plane for any reason, we don’t care about you. Unless you’re rich. Or working for a rich company.

It doesn’t matter that this message is unintended. Every other airline that I know of asks families, people in wheelchairs, or “anyone who needs a little extra time” to board the airplane first. And I’m sure Delta used to, too. There’s a good reason for it. Because these people need a little extra time.

The policies of several US airlines have been confusing me recently, but Delta’s above all. There was the flight attendant who told me, kindly, that I wasn’t allowed to use the Ergo carrier while in flight, and definitely never during takeoff and landing. Sorry? How else am I meant to keep a small person who doesn’t understand “sit down and shush” still?

Which reminds me of my shock when I found that no US airline seems to provide infant seat belt extenders for children riding on an adult’s lap. “You just hold him,” said a flight attendant. “No, you can’t put the seat belt around him.” When I flew British Airways with John at 8 months old, I was required to attach an extra seat belt for him. To me, “just hold him” makes about as much sense on an airplane as it does in a speeding car: none.

And then there’s the new enforcement of an odd rule that forbids passengers from using the seat pocket in front of them as a storage unit. “The pocket is not for your personal items,” one flight attendant announced. What the hell else is it for? Sure, I can see some people might overstuff it, but a small water bottle and a trade paperback? Take out the idiotic SkyMall catalog and there’d be room for plenty.

What really makes me laugh now, though, is the specific position in which you’re meant to hold a child riding in your lap during take-off and landing: they must sit quietly in your lap, sideways, with one of your arms half-hugging them and the other hand pressing a head against your shoulder. You try it, I want to tell them every time, with a wiggly, fussy, extremely strong toddler. I’ve received no less than 8 instructions on this position by now, and each time the attendant walks off, the occupants of all surrounding aisles turn toward me, roll their eyes, and whisper, “They have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Whoever makes these rules must not have children. I understand safety, but safety is a moot point when its directions are impossible to follow.

Not impossible would be to show respect to people who need more time to get on a plane. To many healthy young people traveling alone, it might not matter, but to me the preference shown for First Class passengers while letting families and wheelchairs and everyone else join the herd smacks deeply of injustice. And stupidity. Because as of Saturday I’m going to be paying for my son’s seats. And they won’t be on Delta.

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