New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 2, 2013
Liz Tankel, a mother of two, does not need to be told that there is tension between leisure and business travelers on planes.
On a flight several years ago from Dublin to Philadelphia, Tankel and her son were seated next to a business traveler, who upon seeing his 10-year-old seatmate, asked to be moved. "I do not want to be seated next to a child for this flight,"' Tankel remembers the man telling the flight attendant, who went off to see what arrangements she could make.
When she returned, the flight attendant told the complaining passenger, "You will not have to sit next to this child," and escorted Tankel and son out of their coach seats and up to the premium cabin.
Business and leisure travelers "are going on to flights preparing to do battle," said Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com, an airfare search site. "Planes are crowded. It's not like parents can get their own row. And they are fighting for overhead bin space."
Recognizing that even parents are sometimes ambivalent about flying with children, WestJet of Canada produced an April Fool's Day video spoof in 2012, suggesting children on their airline travel in the cargo hold. Robert Palmer, a spokesman for the airline, was quick to note that the airline, which flies to 50 popular vacation destinations, prides itself on being family-friendly. "We're looking at ways to attract the business traveler but not at the expense of the leisure traveler," he said.
Airlines that have been trying to balance the needs of the two customer groups agree that keeping children entertained and fed is crucial to maintaining calm in the cabin.
Airlines like Emirates say they have given the issue a lot of thought — not surprising, given that its flight from Dubai to New York is 13 hours.
Protecting business travelers from being disturbed by children is a "fine balance," according to Terry Daly, divisional senior vice president for service delivery at Emirates. Young travelers are given a backpack with toys, a magazine and other merchandise and the airline's in-flight entertainment has 30 channels of family programming, he said.
The airline also said in a statement, "Emirates' devotion to keeping kids entertained during flights plays a huge role in protecting the flight experience for everyone on the aircraft."
On the daytime leg of El Al's 10 1/2-hour summertime flight between the United States and Israel, a clown works the aisles entertaining children, said Danny Saadon, the carrier's vice president for North America. For that season, the ratio of leisure to business travelers can jump as much as 15 percent, the result of airline discounts that increase according to the number of children traveling. Families visiting Israel tend to have a lot of children, Saadon said.
So far, business travelers are not put off by the prospect of sharing the plane with a large number of children because they appreciate the effort the airline is making to accommodate families, Saadon said. "If you want to make money, you need to look good in the eyes of your customers."
Lufthansa of Germany just created a special position for a manager focused on family travelers as the airline seeks to broaden its passenger base.
"This is one of the key markets we want to target," said Dorothea von Boxberg, director of the airline passenger experience. "If we want to grow, we have to tap the untapped areas, and one is the leisure traveler."
Still, other airlines are more concerned that business travelers will respond like the one Tankel encountered on her flight from Ireland. "Nobody wants to be seated next to a child," said Chang, a frequent traveler who admits to being a seat kicker when he was young.
Malaysia Airlines does not allow children in first class on its Boeing 747s, a decision it made after new seats interfered with the brackets for wall-mounted bassinets, and it reserves the upper deck of its Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s for travelers over the age of 12. Younger travelers will be assigned to the upper cabin seats only if the lower cabin is filled. The lower deck has more bathrooms and is closer to the doors for boarding, the airline said in a statement.
The low-cost carrier AirAsia X, also based in Malaysia, has a special section reserved for families. Azran Osman-Rani, the airline's chief executive, said that sorting passengers this way made everybody happy. "A majority of people love the idea of having the choice, including families with kids," he said.
With areas designated for children, parents do not need to feel guilty about the rambunctious nature of children, he said. "They don't have to feel uncomfortable," or be stuck with people giving them stares.
Gulf Air, based in Bahrain, briefly offered sky nannies to its youngest customers, but the airline scaled back the program this year to save money, so the in-flight amenity, uncommon in the industry, is available only to business-class passengers.
Still the idea seemed a good one to Julie Melnick of California, who said she was unable to get help with her bags while boarding a plane with her baby several years ago. "I asked a gate agent to help me, and he said, ‘Ma'am, that's your personal belongings."'
The experience led Melnick, a public relations consultant, to create Nanny in the Clouds, an online market that connects traveling parents with people on the same flight who might be interested in making some money baby-sitting a child at 36,000 feet.
"Airline employees are overworked and underpaid, and a lot of times they're not willing to give the extra hand that people need," she said.
Many travelers have visited Nanny in the Clouds, Melnick said, which has accumulated 2,000 names in its database since its introduction in November 2011. But with 24,000 flights a day in the United States, it has been difficult for parents and nannies to find an exact match.
One mother, who recently hired a sitter through the site for a trip from San Francisco to Washington, wrote to Melnick saying that the nanny entertained her child and allowed her to watch a movie and read a book.
"We've gotten so many emails from people," Melnick said. "It's not just moms with kids but anybody who needs a hand — the elderly or even anxious fliers."
In this respect, Melnick said, business travelers and young travelers are not so different. "Flying is really stressful whether you have the kid or not."