TALK BACK: a traveler's dilemma



I just returned from a lovely getaway with my kids. My husband needed to stay home to work, so I was flying solo with my 5 year old and 3 year old from the west coast to the east coast. For the most part, our flights were uneventful. The kids are both completely in awe of all things "airplane". The airport is their happy place. They giggle as the plane takes off and lands. They think turbulence is part of the fun. We had a bit of a "bumpy" section. The kind of "bumpy" where people are gasping and praying out loud. Callen was laughing and saying, "Do it again!" It was no day at the spa...I was definitely on alert and had my "mom antennae" up the entire time. But, the kids did great...no big meltdowns to speak of.


My dilemma was with regard to the airline I was flying on. This airline, which will remain nameless (okay, it rhymes with "mouthfest"), does not assign seats prior to the flight. They just put you in boarding groups. Group A and Group B. After the Group A people board, then they offer families a chance to "pre-board" before the Group B people. So, my kids and I were a part of Group B. We were delighted that we got to "pre-board" with the families in between A and B.

We marched our merry little traveling selves down the ramp to the entrance of the plane. We smiled at the cheerful flight attendant welcoming us onto the plane. The kids smiled and chatted to people as we walked towards the back of the plane. I noticed that in most of the aisles, people in the A group had taken the window and aisle seats, leaving the one middle seat open in between them. "Keep going, guys. We need three seats. Go towards the back." We kept marching towards the back of the plane. Middle seat open. Middle seat open. Middle seat open. Now, I can see the back of the plane and there are no more seats together. No more seats. Only middle seats open.

So, here I stand at the back of the plane with my two kids. One has been known to get motion sickness. There is a flight attendant standing at the back of the plane looking at me. Staring at me blankly. So, I say somewhat loudly in a cheerful voice, hoping that passengers will do the right thing. "We need 3 seats together and there are only individual seats left. Could you help us?" I am smiling. I am friendly. I am the mom who has it together and I am prepared. Snacks - check. Fully charged laptop and collection of favorite DVD's - check. Headphones splitter so that both kids can hear and passengers are not annoyed by kid movie noise - check. Crayons and paper - check. Books to read - check. Magnet traveling games - check. Emergency lolly pops - check. Empty bladders - check. I am smiling. I am friendly.

The flight attendant gives me the most patronizing smile and says, "I'm sorry, ma'am, what you see is what is available."

What?

I reply: "I am not really comfortable with my children sitting away from me." I point to my son, "He is three."

In my head, I am saying, "Oh no you didn't just act like that was no biggie! Lady, you need to step up and do your job or I am going to turn into a terrorist!"

Mind you, this is a 3 1/2 hour flight. Are you serious? You want me to let my two children sit next to random strangers? Not even in the same row as me? Not just across the aisle? Who is going to distribute the snacks? How will I decide who gets to watch the DVD player? And the big whopper - God forbid, but just what if there is an issue with the plane and we are going down - who is going to make sure they get off the plane down the big yellow slide, or have their oxygen masks firmly attached to their faces with the little ribbon things pulled snuggly? Seriously, you want me to put them in someone else's hands?

I am no longer the calm mom. I am starting to sweat and I am borderline really annoyed. Not just with "Patronizing Pattie", the flight attendant, but also with all the other passengers who are staring at me and NOT DOING ANYTHING. There were about 20 blank stares coming my way that were totally unemotional. I wanted to shout, "Where are the nice people on this plane?"

She looks at me calmly and says, "You can see if someone is willing to move for you." Then, she takes a breath and says in a totally sing song voice, "Is there anyone willing to move so that this mom can sit with her 3 year old?" The tone of her voice was more like, "I don't care if you do or don't and I don't think anyone should move for this lady. She is asking way too much."

I interject, "Actually, is there anyone who is willing to move so that I can sit by both of my kids?"

Pause. Quiet. Cricket. Silence. No. One. Moves.

Flight attendant is standing there staring at me with her head tilted to the side.

And, then after a few more seconds of awkward silence, a women elbows her husband and says, "Let's split up so she can sit with her kids." I wanted to be thankful, but I was actually really, really pissed that it took so long for someone to respond. I thank them profusely. I glance back at the flight attendant and give her a bit of my stink eye and will myself not to flip her off.

I did catch the eye of another mom who was sitting in between her two boys who looked like they were about 9 and 11. They were all 3 holding hands and sitting as a family. She had sympathy in her eyes. Her eyes showed me that I was not crazy.

After we sat down and were snapped in and settled and talking about the window shades and trays built into the chairs in front of us, I finally exhaled. I had a little mini conversation with myself of what my next step would have been had no one moved. I feel pretty strongly that kids should get to sit next to a parent or loved one on a flight. I actually feel so strongly that I will be sending a letter to this airline to suggest that families get to "pre-board" before the A's. (I did suggest that to the person checking my bags on the way home, and she acted as though I was crazy to think it was that big of a deal. What is wrong with you people?)

Of course, I had all these great ideas and witty one liners popping into my head the entire flight after we were settled. My favorite one was, "Who wants to sit next to my 3 year old who gets sick on airplanes? Don't worry, I have learned that if you make the magazine in front of you into a funnel you can get most of the vomit into the bag..." Or, "Here you go. My son is going to sit here. He tends to scream when we get to high altitudes. Sorry about that. I will be up there in 14F. I hope it goes okay. He likes cars."

Of course, I also had a debate with myself of whether I had unrealistic expectations of the airline and the people around me. I sat there wondering if I am an overprotective mom for wanting to sit by my kids. Was I asking too much of the people around me to want them to rearrange their seats so that we could be by each other?

What would you do if you were in my shoes? If you were an onlooker, would you stand up for another mom and help her get seats with her kids?

[Incidentally, as we were lining up to leave the plane, the "sympathetic mom" who had locked eyes with me for a quick second reached up and squeezed my shoulder and said, "By the way, I thought that was crazy that the flight attendant did not help you sit with your kids. She was really rude to you the way she handled that and how she talked to you."

Thank you, fellow mama, whoever you are! You have no idea how much that helped. I immediately felt way less crazy. And, to all you other people - business men, college students, casual travelers, you need to learn how to be nice people.]

19 comments:

  1. Nope, you aren't crazy for wanting to sit with your YOUNG kids. Good gravy. I hope that if I'm ever in a situation like that that I can remember to be sensitive. And, yes, you need to write the airline about it. It's ridiculous that the flight attendant didn't do more right away to be more accommodating.

    I took a flight with a Canadian airline that rhymes with "bestset" back in college. I was on my way home to my grandmothers funeral and in a bit of shock. They needed three seats together and we're trying to shuffle people around. We all had booked seats. I was on an aisle and saw that no one was volunteering so I did, so a dad could sit with his two kids. I ended up with a window seat in a row with a 12 year old girl who didn't say peep to me the entire time which was fabulous. As I was getting off the plane the flight attendants were so grateful that I had been accommodating that they basically wanted to give me the mini-bar. That's what I call stepping up!

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  2. This totally happened on my flight a few weeks ago with Southwest. The plane was pretty empty when I got to pre-board so I had no problem getting 3 seats, but there was a mom later that didn't. The attendants were super nice and really sarcastic with the rest of the flight. basically saying what you said in your head. "If you are unwilling to move seats than you will have the joy of sitting next to a young child and dulling out snacks and wiping noses." It took 15 minutes for someone to move!

    My other complaint was the three mothers or families with lap children feigning ignorance when they had them strapped into the seat next to them, this delayed us again as the people who agreed to get up still needed a seat on the plane and it appeared full. The attendants had to ask every mother if her belted child was a lap child.

    Other than that, I have had great experiences on Southwest.

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  3. Unbelievable. I can't believe people to offer up their seats immediately -I would have. Southwest needs to change that rule!

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  4. Thats BS!!! smoke was billowing out of my hears just reading that!! UGH! Fly Delta next time. sorry that happened to you :(

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  5. Ali, I totally hear you. We ride "Mouthfest" too and have had a very similar experience (what? I can't sit with my FIVE MONTH OLD INFANT?). There's a good chance I would have hit the pissed point earlier than you. And Matt and I totally would have split up to let a family sit together...you're not unreasonable. Write that letter!

    side note(and this in no way mitigates how dumb their "pre-boarding is"): If you check in online 24 hours before your flight, you can get "A" and board with the "A" group. We've learned the hard way.

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  6. Hi, my name is Gennifer and I just wanted to say that is flight attendant was unbelievable! Of course she was rude. I am a mom of two girls, 2 and a half and 9 months. We are taking our first family of four flight next month and if I was in a similar position you had been in, I would have felt exactly the same way. Infuriated with that flight attendant. SHe obviously does not have kids, but even if she does not she should have realized the importance of traveling with little ones and having them sit right by you.

    Good luck with your letter! I think families should board before the A's!

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  7. That is crazy. You are most definitely not. I can't believe people were so rude. I would have absolutely moved. What were those people thinking they were going to accomplish by sitting there? The joy of getting to sit by an unattended three-year-old? Really? Sigh. I haven't flown since my son was in my lap, but that is just insane.

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  8. We are flying SW in a few weeks, and I am so worried about this! I will be online exactly 24 hours before the flight to check-in, but even then... Luckily there are 4 adults, and only 2 kids in our travelling group, so the kids should get to sit next to one of us atleast!

    The flight attendant totally should have helped you more! Why bother allowing families with small kids to board before boarding group "B" if they will not get to sit together anyways?

    Though, I like your plan to sit the 3 yr old down and tell the other passengers what he likes/ dislikes/ how to help the vomit get in the bag etc. I will definitly keep that in mind if we run into the same situation next month!

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  9. Shannon - Here is the funny part about the 24 hour check in. I learned that lesson on the way out, so I did the online check in 24 hours ahead of my return. 24 hours on the dot...I was still placed in B. They were already full. When I checked my bags, I mentioned this to the lady and she just shrugged.

    Maybe we should start a "Mama Petition" for the airline!

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  10. What a nightmare! I would be writing a letter to "mouthfest" too! In fact, I want to write one anyway, just because that could have EASILY been me. Where are all the nice people??? I'm terrified of flying and have requested to be seated next to my husband in situations like that. Who wants to hold my 28 year old hand and wipe my tears? A stranger? PLEASE!

    My parents, husband, and our 16 month old will be flying "mouthfest" in Sept. and I pray to God that we are As, or I'm raising hell! Seriously.... they'll kick me off before I can't sit by my baby! All families, flying all airlines, should have pre-board status. PERIOD. All the single traveler people can just fill in around us.

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  11. People are crazy. I couldn't believe it when they moved "family" boarding to in between "A" and "B." Totally insane. I am flying Southwest next week by myself with a 4 month old and a 2 year old...Hoping I have a little better luck...or just a few nicer people on board! ;)

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  12. That is just ridiculous that an airline employee would not help you sit by your children!! What if there was an emergency?? What if they got sick?? Or worse, what if they were sitting next to someone who should NOT be sitting next to children??? I think you were overly gracious...I may have thrown a tantrum to rival my daughter's if I were you. That is just unbelievable and utterly TERRIBLE service. Not to mention the plane load of people unwilling to let a mother sit by her very young children! Oh, I'm getting worked up just thinking about it.
    Writing a letter is definitely necessary. They could probably use a good phone call and maybe a call to some news agencies to put the pressure on the airline to change their policies.

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  13. Just so you know, this happens on ALL airlines, even those that assign seats. Here in Minneapolis, we are forced to fly Northwest, where you have to pay money to pick most seats on a flight before the day of departure. Which means you get assigned all over the plane. And if you think it's difficult to get people to move who have just sat down, try getting them to move when they have been "assigned" this seat. It's almost impossible.

    That's why we're flying Southwest next week to Denver. We feel like we have a better chance to sit together as a family (2 adults, 2 kids, 1 lap baby) doing our own boarding.

    And Southwest USED to let families pre-board. I wonder why they changed it to put them between groups A and B. That doesn't make much sense to me.

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  14. I loved the sarcastic remarks. They do work btw. I was not on an airplane, but my toddler had to use the washroom when we were in a bulk foods store (kind of warehousey place). I was thrilled when I actually managed to find a staff member to direct me to the washroom, but when I asked if they have washrooms he gave me a blank look as said, "um, no not really". So I told the guy that my son, who was doing a little dance, could hang out with him while I finished my shopping, I'm sure it wouldn't be any trouble for him to mop up a little puddle. At which point the guy looked mortified and appologized and pointed the way. Unfortunately I was mad for the rest of the trip and ended up going to another store for the things I needed.

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  15. dude, Ali, change your letter into a petition and I'd be happy to sign it.
    If it wasn't for their cheap fares I would never fly southwest (and grrr, I hate that they are cheap, forcing me to give them my money!).
    I hate the way they treat families. It is absolutely ridiculous that they think that business men need more time to settle in and get that perfect seat than families who need to sit together. It should be illegal to have a 3 year old have to be separated from his parent. I mean, seriously!
    Not to mention, how can it possibly save them any time or money by not assigning seats?! All the other airlines have an automated, computerized program that spits out a seat number and then if you don't like it you can switch to whatever else is available. Easy-peasy! It's like they like the chaos and stress that it gives people having to check in exactly 24 hours ahead of time only to get a C boarding pass number.
    Sorry, this comment is a bit of a venting session now, but I could go on and on about how much these procedures drive me crazy!! I'm so sorry you had to go through that!

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  16. So I shared this story with my husband expecting him to have the same pity for you as I did. His response shocked me . . . He said that we have a choice to fly SW or to fly another airline. This is their policy and we all know it when we buy tickets. We are on a budget and can't afford more expensive flights by any means! But he is right. We choose to do other things for our childen because of predetermined rules. Why do we expect SW to bend their rules that we are aware of? We should just fly other airlines. Of course letters and petitions are great ideas too! But in the meantime when we buy tickets we should take their policy into consideration. What if there are no nice people on the plane? None of us would seperate from our kids so then we'd be forced to do something else.

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  17. Wow, that is truly mom's worst nightmare! I would have been absolutely flabbergasted about no one giving up their seat. And no way is it cool to expect kids under ten to sit away from their mom. Sure, we know that Southwest doesn't do pre-assigned seating, but that's no excuse for people not to be decent! Sorry you had such a bad experience, mama!

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  18. You should have totally put your kids in a middle seat and wait for them to start crying for snacks.. then go to feed them and lean over the aisle sitter and basically make aisle sitters life miserable!

    I ONLY fly Delta. You can choose your seats as soon as you book your tickets.

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  19. I learned about "mouthfest" last year. I would rather never see my siblings and parents again then deal with the anti-family protocols they have. I was in the same situation, a 3 year old and a 5 year old and a lap infant. Fortunately some people moved, but I did have people tell me no they had to sit there. What adult neeeeds to sit by a window and that window.

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