For some travelers, nothing can kill that premium-cabin buzz quicker than an infant next to them. But for parents, despite the overwhelming opposition (and glaring side-eye), seats in the front of the plane can be golden.
Nurhachi Che, a 37-year-old I.T. consultant from Cherry Hill, N.J., was looking forward to two hours of uninterrupted work on her first-class flight from Philadelphia to Kentucky in February. Prepped to conquer all her work tasks, she carefully unpacked her laptop, her AirPods and her noise-canceling headphones. And then a mother and her baby plopped into the first-class seat next to Ms. Che’s, and she was pretty sure her undisturbed flight was doomed.
Even after putting in her earbuds and then noise-canceling headphones over them, Ms. Che said she was unable to block out the sound of the baby’s cries. When, an hour before landing, the baby and her mother finally fell asleep, the infant started slipping into Ms. Che’s lap.
“I am not heartless and would never wish harm on a child, but, quite frankly, it’s not my job to watch a sleeping baby,” said Ms. Che, who is child-free by choice. “Needless to say, between the screaming and then babysitting for the final hour, I got almost no work done, and ended up working late into the night to catch up after a long day of travel.”
For many travelers, luxury and babies don’t mix. For those who prefer to mix with grown-ups while they’re trying to unwind, we have adults-only pools and kid-free cruises. And yet, at 33,000 feet, when passengers are paying thousands (or dipping into their precious points), there’s no guarantee of a relaxing, adult experience.
There are two very opposing forces at play here: On the other end of the spectrum, parents who bring their children to first class in an effort to be a little more comfortable and feel pampered have to withstand the glares of their fellow passengers and hope for the best. All the major airlines allow infants (there’s no age restriction) to fly in first class when accompanied by an adult.
The challenge for airlines lies in striking a balance between these two competing interests, and striving to ensure a peaceful environment for all their passengers.
Michelle McGovern, a lawyer in Brooklyn, said she totally understood the joy of a baby-free flight, especially in first class, but when she and her lap infant were upgraded on their flight from New York to Paris, she wasn’t going to turn the offer down.
“I entered the plane with Gabe in my arms, took that beautiful left turn to first class, and was terrified that he’d misbehave,” Ms. McGovern said of her then 1-year-old, who, incidentally, didn’t sleep a wink throughout the flight. “It’s that essential question: Does first class buy you the right to avoid hoi polloi and their kids, or do you need to fly private for that?”
Passengers have overwhelmingly voiced their support for kid-free first-class sections. Seventy-four percent of business travelers in Britain said that children were the biggest annoyance of flying, according to a survey by the Business Travel Show Europe, part of Business Travel News Europe, a corporate travel company. And a 2010 survey by Skyscanner, a booking app, found that 60 percent of people wanted airlines to offer a kid-free section.
No such luck — for now, at least. However, the fact that babies are typically unwanted in the front of the plane has made some parents think twice before booking that first-class ticket.
Sarah Joseph, a co-founder of Parental Queries, a parenting website, flew from St. Louis to Dubai with her 9-month-old son and found the ordeal to be overwhelming. She had booked a first-class ticket because she was looking for a more comfortable experience, but after her baby started to cry, Ms. Joseph said she became embarrassed and apologized to her fellow passengers.
Jakob Miller, a retired doctor on Staten Island, recently took a trip to Europe with his wife and experienced a similar situation, though he was on the opposing team.
“At first, we just tried to ignore the noise and focus on our own conversation, but as the hours went by, the baby’s cries became louder and more frequent,” Dr. Miller said, explaining that although the mother tried to calm her baby, nothing worked — which is why he believes that babies should be banned from first class on planes. “First class is a premium space where passengers pay extra for added comfort and relaxation. The presence of a baby, with their potential crying and fussing, would disrupt the peaceful atmosphere and ruin the experience for other passengers.”
Despite the many outspoken anti-baby voices, Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, who has a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old, believes that the overall sentiment toward babies is changing, offering more empathy toward families traveling with young children.
“Of all the people in society who could use a bit of extra rest and relaxation, it’s parents of young kids,” Mr. Keyes said.
That’s not to say that families with babies should ignore etiquette if they choose to fly first class, however.
Before booking a first-class ticket, parents must make an informed decision as to whether they think their child will be a disruption, said Elaine Swann, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol, an etiquette school in Carlsbad, Calif. This means being conscious of the length of the flight, the time of day that they’re flying and the age of the child. If it seems like the child will be a disruption to others, parents should select another section of the plane, Ms. Swann suggested.
“This is where we need to think about how our choices and our behavior can impact others’ well-being,” Ms. Swann said.
Parents of babies should also be prepared to soothe their children with food, drinks, toys and entertainment, said Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and former flight attendant for Northwest Airlines who is now the director of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, an etiquette consulting and training firm. Since there’s no policy prohibiting children and babies from flying in first class, then as long as they are respectful and well behaved, they belong there, she said. Plus, Ms. Whitmore said, many of them are better behaved than some adults.
Collette Stohler, a travel journalist and the co-creator of Roamaroo, a travel blog, has taken her baby to six countries and seven states in first class throughout his 8-month life, and she said she’d received many compliments on how well behaved the infant has been on those flights. That’s more than she can say for the adults surrounding her child.
“We’ve encountered plenty of ill-behaved, loud, drunk and entitled adults that disturb the peace in first-class cabins on many flights,” Ms. Stohler said.
When Dr. Amy Guralnick, a pulmonologist, took her 3-year-old to Israel from Chicago in business-class seats, the woman next to her immediately switched her seat to coach to avoid being around the baby. The man who claimed the abandoned business-class seat was loud and obnoxious and spilled his drink on the baby, who slept throughout the entire 12-hour flight, Dr. Guralnick said.
“When deplaning, the original woman saw us and said she kept checking on us during the flight, and saw that Sasha slept the whole time, and lamented that she hadn’t kept her original seat,” Dr. Guralnick said.
Ms. McGovern, the lawyer who flew with her 1-year-old, has always pondered whether it’s fair to bring babies into first class. Now with 2-year-old twins and a 7-year-old, she totally understands why others might not want to share the first-class cabin with her family, but she also doesn’t have much luxury in her life these days.
“I’d take luxe accommodations with a side of seatmate resentment any day,” Ms. McGovern said.
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