Are airlines about to charge your kids more?

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By Christopher Elliott

If your blood pressure spikes when you think about the words “kids” and “airline” in the same sentence, as you just did (sorry about that), then this story may have a calming effect.

True, there’s no faster way to start a brawl on a flight or an online chat room than by putting the two together. Some passengers feel the interior of a plane should be a designated quiet zone; others treat it as a playground. It’s a conflict as old as commercial aviation.

A 2014 survey by Expedia found that 64 percent of airline passengers believe “screaming, whiny” kids and their permissive parents were the top annoyance. It was the No. 2 irritant behind “seat kickers,” which, if you want to get technical about it, can also involve children.

New challenges and solutions

But now, there are new solutions on the horizon. Airlines appear poised to start charging more for the youngest (and often loudest) passengers, a step that could force some families to consider alternate transportation. And the parents who remain are getting a new set of tools to keep midair conflicts to a minimum.

In what observers fear could have a ripple effect, Brazilian airlines are reportedly asking their government for permission to start charging higher fares for kids under 2. Currently, “lap kids” on planes in Brazil pay 10 percent of the adult fare. In the United States, lap kids younger than 2 traveling with a parent on domestic flights don’t pay anything, but airlines are looking for more ways to increase revenue. So if the “baby tax” flies in Brazil — and we won’t know whether it will until next year — it could make its way over here. (Here’s my guide on what to do if an airline denies you boarding.)

Families traveling with young kids already face a relatively new hurdle. Most airlines no longer include a confirmed seat reservation in the price of an economy-class ticket. Parents routinely complain about what they feel are extortionate demands for “confirmed” reservations that would allow them to sit next to their children. That’s unlikely to be resolved until parents stop wanting to sit next to their kids, which, in my experience, happens when they turn about 11.

Solutions for parents

“Parents are finding it more challenging than ever to travel with their children,” says Rainer Jenss, president of the Family Travel Association, a trade organization, “particularly on airplanes.”

But help is on the way. The solutions range from pharmaceutical to new parenting and passenger strategies for dealing with the littlest passengers. (Continental Airlines mistakenly charged Greg Sykes for his child’s car seat, expecting a quick refund.)

Katie Dillon, who runs the blog LaJollaMom, always flies with Children’s Tylenol, which her doctor recommended for pain associated with a pressurized aircraft cabin, and Dramamine for Kids, for treating air sickness. “It’s about being proactive and anticipating problems before they disrupt an entire cabin,” she says.

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Another fix being marketed to families is an oral rehydration solution called DripDrop ($10 for eight 0.35-ounce packages of dry powder), which, when mixed with water, enhances fluid retention and prevents dehydration on dry planes. The powder contains a precise ratio of sodium, sugars and electrolytes that, its creators claim, is a portable defense “against long lines, high altitude, jet lag and misadventures in unfamiliar cuisine.” Plus, it comes in berry and lemon flavor, so kids are more likely to drink it.

Using food and airline services to keep kids calm

Increasingly, savvy parents are also turning to the right foods to calm their little ones. For Corinne McDermott, a magazine editor from Toronto who also runs the Web site, that means cutting back on the sugary treats she packs.

McDermott prefers red-eye flights because her kids sleep on the plane. To help them along, she offers them an oatmeal cookie, “ideally juice-sweetened or made with a minimal amount of sugar,” she says. Why? Oatmeal is a slow-release carbohydrate that’s well liked and digested easily. Milk is also a sleep-inducing food, she says.

Some airlines are also trying to help. Carriers like Alaska Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic offer special children’s meals that have won raves from critics. Etihad Airways even flies with an in-flight nanny to help keep the children distracted and the cabin serene.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle, though, are adult passengers. Peter Altschuler, who runs a marketing company in Santa Monica, Calif., tries to sum up the adult passenger’s side with a little humor.

Childless passengers and families

How does he handle misbehaving kids on a plane? “Ask the parents to do something,” he says. “If the parents blow you off,” he jokes, “ask a flight attendant to intervene — preferably with duct tape and plastic ties.”

For these childless travelers, no amount of upcharging, medicating or nannying is enough. They don’t want to fly with unruly kids, full stop.

But some passengers are warming to the idea that they can share a pressurized aluminum tube with children. Perhaps now, more than ever, these strategies for getting along will be essential to surviving a long flight.

Lee Richardson, a retired fourth-grade teacher from Indianapolis, flies with what she calls a “magic bag-o-tricks” containing treats, markers and a map of the United States that’s designed to defuse any conflict with a juvenile. When she sees a child in the seat behind her, Richardson grabs her bag and introduces herself.

“I say, ‘This is for you, but you have to promise not to kick my seat today,’ ” she says. “Only once have I had to turn around, shoot the kid my most evil-teacher stare, and ask, ‘Did you break your promise?’ ”

Of course, that doesn’t work for babies. “For those instances I bring a set of industrial earplugs,” she says, “and drink coupons.”

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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.

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