Do kids belong on an overnight flight?

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Christopher Elliott

All Ed Lawrence wanted was a little rest.

He was on an overnight flight from San Francisco to Boston, which offered him six hours of sleep, at best. And he figured everyone else would want some peace and quiet on what’s traditionally called the “red eye” flight.

He was wrong.

Two toddlers seated near to him decided it was playtime, and their rookie parents and other passengers indulged the young passengers. Lawrence, a frequent flier who works for a technology firm in the Boston area, didn’t sleep a wink.

“I wonder if kids should be on a red-eye flight,” he says.

His question comes at an interesting time. It seems two airlines agree with him, at least partially.

Malaysia Airlines this summer introduced a no-kids section some aircraft flying between Kuala Lumpur and London. And another Malaysian airline, AirAsia X, announced it would create a “quiet zone” in the first eight rows of the economy section of some aircraft starting early next year. Both moves seem designed to let passengers sleep on overnight flights.

Some parents might argue — and I might be inclined to agree with them — that a red-eye flight is the perfect place for young kids. As long as they sleep. I’ve made many cross-country flights with my three kids when they were younger, and I preferred the overnight flight because there was a reasonably good chance we’d all get some rest.

But my kids slept, and when they didn’t, they behaved. The ones Lawrence flew with did neither.

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“It was a disaster,” he says.

Lawrence paid an additional $79 for an aisle seat with extra legroom. He sat next to dad, in the middle seat, and one of the toddlers, seated in the widow seat for takeoff and landing. Mom was a few rows back with the second child.

“During the the first couple of hours they had to get up a few times to see mommy or to go to the restroom,” he says. “Sometimes mommy came and stood right next to me. The parents passed the kids over me a few times.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence was beyond exhausted. He’d been up since 6 a.m. that day, had put in a full day of work, and just wanted a few hours of shut-eye before he landed.

“Finally, around four hours into the six-hour flight both kids start screaming non-stop,” he says.

Lawrence turned to the father.

“I want to try to get some sleep,” he told him.

“What do you want me to do?” Dad replied.

“Your problem shouldn’t be my problem,” said an agitated Lawrence.

Other passengers were unsympathetic to Lawrence. One of them suggested he was the real whiner, which made a bad situation even worse.

I feel for both Lawrence and the father, who was probably equally sleep-deprived.

But the experience raises some interesting questions: Are there passengers that should either be denied boarding or limited to certain flights? Who has more rights on a flight — the crying baby or the tired passenger?

I don’t know how to answer either of those questions. They may be unanswerable.

Lawrence says his flight was one of those times. “There clearly was no solution to a bad situation,” he told me.

Unfortunately, crewmembers often must mediate passenger disputes like this, and they shouldn’t have to do that. The rules should be clear, and everyone should understand them.

Obviously, some families with young kids don’t belong on an overnight flight. But how am I supposed to know it’s my family?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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