A 60-year-old man accused of slapping a crying toddler on a Delta flight earlier this month has put a spotlight on one of the most tension-filled aspects of flying -- how irritable passengers on a packed plane co-exist with crying children.
The incident, which has led to an assault charge being filed against the older flier, has also rekindled a debate about whether airlines should carve out sections that are adults only, an idea that some passengers support, but some industry observers say won't fly.
The tension between adults and pint-size seatmates is "pretty significant," says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, particularly at a time when cabins are packed as airlines pare the number of seats they make available.
"The larger issue is if you're a passenger without a kid, you have to expect there will be times when you're flying with a screaming child," Macsata says. "If you're a passenger with a child, it's incumbent upon you to do everything you can to make sure the kid doesn't get out of control."
The Feb. 8 incident on a Delta flight from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Atlanta was perhaps the most serious of a handful that have been reported in recent years. Joe Rickey Hundley allegedly hurled a racist slur at the 2-year-old son of a fellow passenger, Jessica Bennett, before slapping the infant who was making noise as the jet prepared to land.
Hundley was charged in federal court last week with assault. His attorney, Marcia Shein, told the Associated Press that Hundley would plead not guilty to the charge, which could result in a maximum penalty of a year in jail. In the meantime, Hundley's employer, AGC Composites, said that he no longer works for that business.
There have been other incidents. Qantas settled a lawsuit filed in 2009 by a woman who said a screaming child on her flight led her to lose some of her hearing. In 2007, AirTran kicked a family off a flight headed to Boston from Fort Myers, Fla., after the family's 3-year-old daughter refused to sit down and was disruptive.
Such flare-ups, while seemingly rare, raise the question about whether rows set aside solely for families flying with children, or adults who don't have kids, might be a way to tamp down tensions.
Several surveys taken in recent years indicate there are some fliers who would like to see spaces that are kid-free zones.
A TripAdvisor poll to be released next week found that 23% of 2,001 respondents were willing to pay $25 or less to sit in a "quiet" section of a jet. A 2010 poll by fare-comparison website Skyscanner found that 59% of more than 2,000 travelers surveyed wanted airlines to have a section exclusively for families. Almost 20% of those polled said they'd like to see child-free flights.
Some overseas carriers have taken such steps. AirAsiaX, a carrier in Malaysia, has said that starting this month, it would reserve the first seven rows of coach for passengers age 13 and up, dubbing the section the "Quiet Zone." Malaysia Airlines banned babies in the first-class cabins of its Boeing 747 jumbo planes, and has said it will have a section where children aren't allowed in its Airbus A380s, according to the Australian Business Traveller.
But in the U.S., some airline industry analysts say, such separate sections would be unacceptable and could spark a backlash.
"To have a child-only or infant-only section, we get into that debate (about) whether there should be a section for folks traveling with pets, or folks who drink," says Macsata. "When you look at how poorly the airlines do in general in terms of accommodating passengers, imagine how difficult it would be if we had all those different sections for different people."
Delta Air Lines, which says it's "reviewing" the incident allegedly involving Hundley "and cooperating with the FBI," has no plans to create separate sections for families, says spokesman Morgan Durrant.
Jay Sorensen, an airline industry consultant who is an expert on the extra fees carriers charge for everything from checked bags to more legroom, says it's possible a U.S. carrier might one day impose a rule on infants flying in a premium cabin.
But a families-only section in coach, he says, would be unacceptable to many members of the public.
"It would touch on two flash points," Sorensen says. "One is fees, and one is discriminatory practices against children, and I think those things combined would force an airline to not go down that path."
Besides, Sorensen says, there's another way to deal with the discomfort between a cranky adult and an equally tired, noisy toddler. "If there's a kid crying," he says, there's a solution: "It's called earplugs."
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