Q&A: Why Children Are Annoying on Airplanes

Are children really so pesky aloft? Photograph by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Low-cost Malaysian airline AirAsia (AIRA:MK) has finally done what many disgruntled passengers have long hoped for: It has banned children from sections of some airplanes. Starting in February, the first seven economy rows on its long-haul AirAsia X flights will be designated as the “quiet zone” and reserved for adults (well, people over the age of 12) to give passengers a chance to rest during the flights. Malaysian Airlines is also in the process of creating a child-free zone on certain flights. But are children really the worst offenders on airplanes? For an answer, Bloomberg Businessweek turned to Heather Poole, who has chronicled her 17-year career as a flight attendant for a major airline in her book Cruising Attitude.

So are children really that annoying on flights?

Well, first, let me say: I have a six-year-old, so I’m on Team Mom with this one. You can tell when passengers haven’t had kids because they’re less patient. They can get upset just by the thought of having to sit next to a child. That said, kids can be really disruptive on flights. But usually when that happens, it’s not the kid’s fault; it’s the parents’. Not long ago, I had a family come on board and their little girl threw temper tantrum in the middle of the aisle. The parents looked at me and just laughed. I’m like: ‘Can you move your child? I’m trying to board the plane.’

I see parents come on a plane with nothing to entertain their child, so then the kid gets bored and starts kicking the seat in front of them. Sometimes parents will sit in first class but leave their kids in coach. The kids will be standing in the aisle during takeoff or trying to get out of their seats.

Really? Parents really pay that little attention to their kids?

A long time ago I was on a flight—I wasn’t working, I was just flying like a regular passenger—and I felt something between my legs. I looked under my seat and there was a baby. I turned around behind me and the mom was sleeping. I tapped her on shoulder and said, ‘I think this is yours,’ and she took the baby and closed her eyes again. She had no idea that I was a flight attendant; to her I was just a random stranger who’d gotten ahold of her baby.

Do you think children’s behavior is getting worse?

Oh, for sure. When I first started flying, you never saw a kid in first class. And now it’s crowded with kids. I had a passenger with a very large lap child—this kid had to be over the age of two—and it was barely fitting in his lap. I told him, you can’t do this in business class. There are people who are sitting next to you and you’re making them uncomfortable.

If you do travel with kids, what are some tricks to help them behave?

If you can’t sit together, sit behind the kids, instead of in front of them, so you can keep an eye on them. I know of some people who buy little toys from the dollar store, one for each hour of a flight, and if the kid is good, they get a toy. They’ll behave if they know they’re going to get a toy.

Who are the worst behaved on airplanes, children or adults?

It’s definitely the adults. Kids just need supervision, that’s all. But adults should be able to behave themselves. On my flight tonight, I had three passengers—grown adults—almost come to blows over absolutely nothing. One lady was screaming at a guy because he touched her bag and she didn’t like the way he spoke to her when he handed it to her. Then one lady shoves her seat forward and starts ragging on another passenger for I-don’t-know-what. People these days are nuts.