“Unintentional things can and do happen during flights”

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By Christopher Elliott

Before I tell you about Justin Cohen’s case, there are one or two things he wants everyone to know. He likes kids. He’s a former teacher and has a “high tolerance” for unruly youngsters.

Except maybe on an overseas flight where he’s seated next to a kid that doesn’t stop whimpering, whining and screaming for the entire trip.

That’s exactly what happened to Cohen last week. He says he was seated next to an enfant terrible on a US Airways flight from London to Philadelphia, and he wants to know if he can be compensated for the torture. His final destination was Dayton, Ohio, and his connecting flight was uneventful, he says.

Let’s get right to his story. The screaming started before takeoff, when the flight experienced a one-hour ground delay. It got worse once the flight was airborne. Apparently, the parents didn’t know how — or didn’t care to find a way — to silence their offspring.

When a screaming child takes center stage

Cue the first video, above.

“I did mention my discomfort to the crew, but the flight was pretty full,” says Cohen. “The crew just said they’re used to this happening and have learned to tune it out.”

Flight attendants tried to silence the irritable child by bringing extra snacks and drinks.

“Nothing worked,” he says.

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On the flight, the roar of the jet engines mixed with the cacophony of the child’s screams.

“Honestly, I wish I’d thought of asking for another seat,” adds Cohen. “The flight was booked pretty solid. I did my best to blare .mp3s on my laptop to no avail. I left the flight with a pounding headache. The child was louder than the music.”

It gets worse.

Let’s watch another video. The screams really get loud at the 20-second mark.

Cohen contacted me the day after his flight and sent me these videos. He wanted to know what he should do.

I suggested sending a brief, polite email to US Airways asking it to address the noise levels on his flight.

Here’s its response

It is relatively easy to provide good customer service when an operation is running smoothly. We know the test of quality service occurs when we are faced with flight irregularities and problems such as you experienced. We are truly sorry for the delay of Flight 729 and the inconvenience it caused.

Your frustration with our failure to operate this flight as scheduled is understandable. It is not our intent to create difficulties for our customers and we make every effort to avoid flight interruptions. However, I am glad to see that you were able to make your connection flight to Dayton with no delays.

Additionally, I’m sorry to hear you were frustrated and unhappy with another passenger on your flight from London to Philadelphia.

I can understand your frustration with the situation. However, we cannot take responsibility for the actions of another passenger. Unintentional things can and do happen during flights, and it’s unfortunate that you and another passenger were involved in this situation. I’m sorry I am unable to honor your request for compensation for this situation.

Based on what you’ve said, it appears our flight attendant didn’t handle the situation with the quality customer care you expect. I apologize and understand your frustration. I’ve shared your feedback with our Inflight leadership team to help improve our service.

How nice of US Airways to acknowledge Cohen’s flight from hell. How not nice of it to do nothing more than “share” his feedback.

The question is, can I do any better?

Well, at the moment, US Airways and I have something of a love-hate relationship. I like the people I work with over there, and I think they tolerate me, but they’re livid that I refuse to support their wrongheaded, anti-consumer merger with American Airlines.

Let’s just say they probably aren’t going to do me any favors.

But I wonder what Cohen’s bank would think of these videos, if he chose to dispute his credit card purchase? It might agree with him that the product he paid for wasn’t the one he received, although it should be noted that the only seats advertised as “quiet” are the ones in first class.

Some of you will express sympathy for the parents and the baby, which was undoubtedly irritated because of the changes in air pressure and environment. I feel for them, too.

But eight hours? You don’t have to be Parent of the Year to keep your kid quiet for at least part of that time.

Update (8 p.m. EDT): US Airways has responded to this post. I won’t bury the lede, as they say in journalism: They won’t change their answer. But an airline spokesman also offers a few useful insights. Here’s his email, which I’ve republished with his permission. (Related: These airline passengers should get banned.)

Why do kids scream on planes

As a former flight attendant who has dealt with hundreds of screaming babies on flights, I have found there are three basic reasons kids scream on planes:

1. They don’t like to be restrained in seat belts because they are not used to riding in a seat without a safety seat, or being held in a parent’s lap (over 2 years old). This is an issue of not preparing the child appropriately for the airplane environment or not purchasing a seat to use the car seat in. This isn’t your family mini-van on a trip to the store, folks. It’s a closed airplane with hundreds of people around, for eight hours, when folks are trying to sleep.

2. The child has a nasal or ear infection, and the pressure changes are creating excruciating pain in their head because their ears won’t equalize. Most often, it is a long-planned family vacation and the ‘runny nose isn’t that bad, so we’ll be fine.’ Needless to say, another issue of not making the tough call for the child’s safety and maybe not realizing the horrendous pain the child is suffering because of the ear block. It can result in serious ear/hearing damage. That may have been the case here as families returning home with kids who get sick on vacation get ‘destination fixation’ and just want to get back home ASAP – to the dismay of their seatmates.

3. A combination of 2, then 1. The child hurts, then goes into full-tilt meltdown mode when trying to be calmed down, which results in ever-escalating parental attempts at restraint.

So, as anyone who as ever endured a screaming child for this many hours can attest, it is no fun. But compensation? And you have all seen what happens when airlines ask parents with screaming children to deplane – we are seen as ‘anti-family’ and crucified in the media. We are all in a no-win situation with screaming kids. We need the parents to save us from this mess. And when you see well-behaved kids on planes – isn’t it a delight?

My fix for this as a crew member many years ago (assuming it isn’t ear block, but rather a restraint issue) was to ask the parent if I could hold the child … I would then walk to the back of the plane and the child would see they were being separated from their parents and cry even louder because of the separation. I would hesitate, then take the child slowly back to the parent, making sure they could not see them until reunited. Almost always, they quieted immediately because they now had the security of their parent. The separation was far worse than the restraint, and they gladly submitted to the seatbelt when next to mom and dad. When the child acted up, I simply asked the parent if they wanted me to take the child for a short walk, and the child almost always quieted down immediately.

The only fix for the ear block was anti-histamines and a few minutes time … they would open the sinuses, and induce drowsiness which almost always resulted in their repeated yawning (opening the Eustachian tubes) then nodding off. I would never give anything to a passenger’s child, but as a parent, I often made sure my infant son was ‘clean and green’ with anti-histamines 45 minutes before boarding. He was an angel (a sleeping one at that) … and we also traveled often so he got used to being in a seat with his own belt. (Here’s everything that you need to know about planning a trip.)

Sorry, Chris. A lot of empathy here, and a few ideas of what worked for me, but parents with screaming kids should discuss the reasons for the behavioral outbursts with their family doctor. These are not normal. There can be real medical reasons for acting out.

(Note: I’ve also edited this post to reflect that this was not an overnight flight.)

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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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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