I’m pretty sure that no one would ever tell you how much they LOVE traveling with their kids on planes. Particularly when we’re talking about small children, preschoolers, and toddlers.
But when my mom invited me and my four children (5, 5, 3, and 17 months), for a “vacation” in Florida, for some ungodly reason, I thought it was a great idea! Of course, with limited direct flights these days, we had layovers each direction for our “vacation.”
Truth is, my children did incredibly well on the planes to Florida. And, while I’m pretty sure we are still cleaning out the sand from their hair, the beach was, in fact, refreshing and maybe even just a little relaxing. Our trip home however, was another story.
Our first plane left without a hitch. My girls each had a seat, and my 17-month-old son Shai was a “lap-child.” Anyone with a toddler knows that this basically means we did “lap gymnastics” for the hour-plus ride. He would sit and play, then realize he’d rather not sit and try to wriggle out of my arms. But, I’m stronger and smarter. I’d get him interested in singing (I’m sure the passenger in front of us loved my repeated rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”). I found snacks, fun “toys” like an airplane napkin, and for takeoff and landing resorted to my usual “nursing as distraction” technique. He wasn’t the easiest to travel with (they never are at this age it seems), but overall it was OK. And OK was the best I could ask for.
We arrived in Charlotte, NC and found that our hour layover became two hours, then three, then four. My children pulled out toys and snacks from their backpacks, turned cartwheels, and danced around. Perfectly content with space to move, they kept such positive attitudes about our delay. One passenger said, “It’s hard to be mad about any of this, when I see you with your kids, keeping them so calm.” Wow. As a mom, that validation of all my hard work–and a compliment to my children–felt great.
We finally boarded our plane, with more passengers complimenting my kids’ behavior. A few rows back was a woman with an empty seat next to her. Knowing the kind of delay we’d just endured, and that my son was un-napped, my mom attempted to ask the flight attendant if she might be able to facilitate a seat swap, so I would have more room to nurse and hold my son. This flight attendant cut my mother’s request off short and seemed pretty annoyed. My kids were the only children on this flight, and it became pretty evident that the two flight attendants on this flight were less than pleased to be flying with them.
I’ve been on many flights with my kids. Sometimes, as we board, the flight attendants are quick to offer my kids a sticker, or to bring them a bag of pretzels. They smile at us. They make an extra effort to help us. But this flight was not like those.
We began taxiing, moving at a snail’s pace, with no sign of actually taking off. My son was restless; he stuck a leg over and straddled the armrest. A flight attendant came up to me, explaining he couldn’t put his leg over the armrest. I apologized and moved him towards my other side. He played, then fussed. He stood up in my lap while I held him tightly around his torso. He looked to the seat behind me, smiling at my mom. Once more, the flight attendant came over, telling me that I needed to keep him sitting still in my lap. I assured her I was doing my best. I made one more plea to trade seats to the row with the free seat next to it. Her response was short and smug, telling me I should have paid for a seat for him and had him in a car seat. Despite her obvious dislike towards me, I responded politely, offering that on a future flight I would definitely consider that, and that I was simply doing my best.
I began nursing my son as a last resort. He calmed, and we continued taxiing. After over 30 minutes of taxiing, I realized we were heading back to the gate. Was there now a problem with this plane? We parked; the crew opened the door, and on came airport personnel. They walked up to me and told me that my family would need to deplane. The flight crew had determined they would not fly with us. No explanation, no way to change this decision. We deplaned and were told that US Airways would put us on the very next flight to St. Louis, which was leaving in 15 minutes. This flight was fully booked, but they were going to “bump” passengers in order to accommodate us.
Shock, disbelief, frustration, humiliation in front of my children–my emotions ran the gamut. This airline had just delayed a plane an additional 40+ minutes at this point, after the original three-hour delay. They were now going to further delay another plane (which had also been delayed at least two hours!) in order to “bump” passengers from that flight and reorganize the seating to accommodate us. And all for what? A fidgety, fussy toddler? Really?
American Airlines, which bought out US Airways, released this statement to KMOV Channel 4 in St. Louis:
“This passenger and her family were removed off the flight because it was a safety issue. The passenger was unable to control her child who was traveling as a lap child. The flight attendant spoke to the passenger and gave her time to contain her child, but she was unfortunately not able to do so. Out of concern for the safety of both the child and the other passengers, the family was removed from the flight. They were immediately re-accommodated on the next flight to St. Louis.”
They say removing Shai was for his safety and the safety of other passengers. If safety were the concern, why they would have allowed him to fly on a different plane immediately after this incident? Instead of communicating clearly with me, and helping me, they simply off-loaded our family.
On our previous flight from Florida to Charlotte, as we were landing, both my 3-year-old and Shai were starting to melt down. I was in a bit of a panic as I tried to comfort two children and keep them from totally losing it. A very nice woman in the row in front of me turned around, smiled, and offered some granola bars. She waved at my children. My kids calmed down and happily ate the granola bars. She saw a struggling mama, and instead of casting a nasty look of annoyance, or ignoring my struggle altogether, she reached out with a helping hand.
What a different story this would be if the flight attendants had showed the same kind of empathy and understanding. What if they had responded with compassion instead of judgment? Nowadays, it’s easier for airlines and their employees to hide behind “safety regulations.” It seems we have forgotten how to treat each other with a measure of love.
I have yet to receive any apology from the airline and don’t know if I ever will. But maybe this story will begin a conversation about how we change the culture of judgment and “rules” to one of cooperation, understanding, and compassion.
Or, maybe next time, I’ll just drive.