Children in first class? 3 suggestions for the kids ‘up front’

The most embarrassing moment of my life? That’s easy.

Our son, Aren, had just turned one and we were flying from New York to London on an airline whose name I’ve promised never to mention.

We’d managed to score an upgrade — seats 1A and 1B — and to ensure Aren had a pleasant trip, we offered him a nip of Benadryl. Most kids fall asleep when they’re given an antihistamine.

Not mine.

The medication had the exact opposite effect: Aren turned hyper, tearing down the aisle of the first class cabin, shrieking and bumping other passengers. He woke up the person sitting next to us and drooled on the passenger behind us.

All of which bring me to this week’s topic: Kids in first class. Should we or shouldn’t we? And if so, when?

Allow me to state my completely unbiased opinion right up front. No. We should not. At least not mine. I downgraded myself on the flight home, that’s how badly I felt for the other London-bound passengers that day.

What was I thinking, trying to bring a toddler into first class?

I’m not alone.

· An overwhelming majority of air travelers to a recent survey by Skytrax — 9 in 10 respondents — said families with children should be seated in a separate section on flights, presumably not in first class.

· Another poll by corporate travel agency Carlson Wagonlit found that business travelers, who are most frequently found in the business- and first-class cabins, believe crying babies are the second-most annoying aspect of air travel. The first? Air travelers who carry too much luggage on board.

· Several years ago, a United Airlines flight attendant just came out and said it: no children in first class. A passenger disagreed, sued the airline — and lost.

Last week in this column, we argued about whether kids belong on planes, and resolved that although many of us would like to keep the little ones from flying, it’s just not practical. This week, as promised, we’re having a more nuanced and civil discussion about children in the good seats.

Well, sort of. I asked some of my readers for their opinions of kids in first and got an earful.

“No, no, no, no, no,” says Mona Palmer, an administrative assistant from Friendswood, Tex. “First class tickets are too expensive to have the investment destroyed by an unruly kid whose parents think they’ve paid for the privilege of ignoring their kids’ rotten behavior.”

The other side of this argument is equally vehement.

“Give me a break,” says Jennifer Thomas, who describes herself as the owner of a public relations firm and mom. “These questions about kids and flying are frankly disrespectful. Let’s see, kids in first class or terrorists allowed to fly on planes? Or how about just plain rude adults who take to the friendly skies? I would take a child any day over previously mentioned. Why not ask questions about those two audiences?”

Kids! Kids! Can’t we just get along?

Instead of spending the rest of this story fighting (as entertaining as that might be to some of you, dear readers) let’s instead focus on three solutions to this problem.

No children in first class
One of the most persuasive arguments for limiting first class to adults is that the premium cabin is essentially an adult product. Which is to say, it’s difficult for a youngster to appreciate a wine list or a gourmet meal. It’s just no place for kids. Plus, it’s pricey — even if you’re using miles to upgrade. Rosanne Skopp, a grandmother who says she “really loves kids,” puts it this way: “If I’m going to be sitting next to a screaming baby, at least let me feel good that I haven’t paid for a first class ticket, only to be tortured.” No airline that I’m aware of has banned children from first class or business class, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say any of them have opened their arms wide to their junior passengers, either. Like a five-star restaurant or a luxury resort, the first class cabin is not particularly welcoming to young fliers. Or, for that matter, their parents.

Age limit for premium seats
Here’s another suggestion: If we can’t ban minors, then let’s at least prevent the littlest passengers from sitting “up front.” Babies and toddlers are too disruptive to the other passengers, who are paying a premium for their seats. “No one under 12 should be in first class,” says Richard French, an anesthesiologist from Christchurch, New Zealand, who by way of full disclosure, is himself a father. “I pick that age because kids are essentially self-caring by that age and that is the age that airlines start charging an adult fare. It is really depressing when you have treated yourself to a very expensive fare, to have a three-year-old running up and down the aisle.” I can’t argue with that. During my research for this story, I heard whispers that several international airlines had informal age-limit policies for first-class passengers, but they were difficult to confirm.

Let the kids fly
The overwhelming number of travelers I spoke with said kids should be able to fly in first class if their parents could afford to pay the freight. But they were quick to add that they expected the children to behave. “Of course children should be allowed in business- or first class,” says Frank Nowicki, a retiree from Winter Haven, Fla. “As long as the parents have raised their children properly — as far as behavior goes — there should never be a problem on a flight.” Still, Nowicki admits that’s not always possible, and has seen “many occasions” when parents have allowed their offspring to run wild on a flight. “Don’t blame the children,” he says. “Blame the adults for their permissive ways and their lack of parenting skills.” But how do you mandate good parenting on a plane? A multiple-choice quiz? Social references? Even peer pressure —dirty looks and all — isn’t always enough to stop these indulgent parents from boarding a flight, or buying an upgrade for their brood.

I’m afraid this is one of those instances when new rules and regulations, even with the best of intentions, would not end the problem of disruptive kids in first class. This is ultimately a parent’s decision that the entire first-class cabin must live with.

But before buying a premium ticket, here are a few useful questions to answer: Can my child behave like a first-class passenger? If not, do I have the parenting skills to contain a meltdown? Is it really worth the hassle — not to mention the money?

I’ve already answered those questions. My son Aren, who today is a reasonably well-mannered first grader, now has two siblings: a four-year-old brother with a penchant for practical jokes and a slightly hyperactive two-year-old sister. Even if I could, I would never inflict them on another first class passenger. Ever.

But if you think your kids can do better, I have just four words for you: Welcome to first class!

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Madonna5

    I’m on the fence, as my husband and decide on a vacation next fall with our 1 year old and 4 year old. One thing I believe is that we all need to have realistic expectations of children. As a former Pilates instructor and professional dancer, I believe kids need movement. Sitting for long periods is not good for anyone’s body and almost impossible for a child’s body. If you see a child moving up and down the aisle, be happy that there getting some exercise. This will help
    Them wind down. You yourself get up after them and do the same. I love how people who’ve had kids quickly forget or those w no kids are so clueless as to how difficult traveling can be with little ones. I consider my husband and I good parents who set boundaries and limitations. However, traveling upsets all childrens routines, whether it’s tummy trouble, fatigue, or restlessness, every parent experiences hiccups when traveling. We try and have back up and plan for the worst, but inevitably something gets overlooked, a third pacifier, a third set of clothes, prunes for constipation, you get it. So, when you see a parent who chose to sit in first class, maybe me, who’s planned and planned, and is ready (like you) to enjoy the upgraded food and extra space to spread out, but is experiencing some turbulence with his or her children, I encourage you to block it out or maybe reach out and ask to help. Maybe even share your stories of travel with your own. God knows we’re all looking for peace and quiet, and I’m pretty sure most of the responsible parents who ALSO earned the status of first class was/is looking forward to everyone enjoying the flight.

  • tharpey

    It’s hard enough to sit in coach by yourself. Let alone when you’re trying to hold an infant in your lap, breastfeed them, or keep them occupied for 4hrs.

    Give me a break. If coach is going to continue to be a cattlehearding of large americans into tiny spaces…I’m going to keep upgrading my family to 1st class to keep our sanity.

    If airlines want to decide to give human beings a little elbow and knee room in coach, then we’ll re-consider and let you have your cushy 1st class lifestyle.

  • tharpey

    and the 1 square foot seating arrangements in coach won’t allow for us to hold our infant in our lap with any sort of success.

  • tharpey

    if a child is in pain or discomfort….your toys aren’t going to sidetrack them for a second. you think someone should be fined because their child can’t communicate pain?

  • 12124

    Of course children should be able to fly first class. I flew it multiple times under 12, and I am well behaved. When I have kids I am not going to make them fly coach especially when I take them to Europe and Asia. If you have the money then spend it. Coach is not fun and I hated it the few times I flew it..

  • mikeiscool98

    I am I child myself and have never traveled first class, even though my parents are extremely well off, have enough frequent flyer miles, and are given money by the World Bank to travel first-class during flights. Instead my parents the take the cost of the plane ticket, buy economy class tickets and then keep the difference. Not only have they saved money, they have also not spoiled their children. Flights are almost never longer than 8 hours you don’t need first class seating so don’t spoil your children. Teach them to be responsible. You might say I’m just a child and don’t know very much about airline travel, but I’ve visited 15 countries and lived in 4 different countries. I know all about travel.

  • Cynthia

    This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever heard. Are we really treating our little ones, our future generation, like second-class citizens? Seriously? I understand that some parents don’t take responsibility for their kids behavior but whether that happens in first class, coach, or at the mall isn’t the kids fault. I am the mother of a toddler and we ONLY fly first class with her. She’s very well behaved and we prepare weeks in advance doing things like wrapping presents that she can unwrap onboard, packing her favorite snacks, and buying new books (she loves to “read”) so she doesn’t get bored. We also time all flight around her nap to make sure that for at least 2 hours of the flight she’s asleep. You can’t penalize every child and parent based on the actions of a few irresponsible parents. And by the way, kids aren’t unruly just for the sake of it. They are often tired, over or under stimulated, hungry or a plethora of other things that their parents can often soothe in minutes. It’s scary and sad to see the attitude toward these precious little beings. Is there no love, compassion or understanding left in the world?

  • professor

    How is a meltdown easier to contain or better for passengers in coach? Children sit with their parents who sit where they can afford. Period.

  • cerenatee

    “Society used to look upon children with pride and with eyes glistening as they considered the potential yet to be uncovered.”

    People use to raise their children. Children had manners. They knew how to act in public. They were respectful and did what they were told. Now a days, parents have no idea how to raise a child. They let them run around unattended, screaming their heads off, destroying everything in their path, while they look up and then go back to reading on their ipad or talking with their friends. Parents refuse to train their children to function properly in society. If you want people to love your little one, train him up in the way he should go.

  • cerenatee

    Your comparison is ridiculous. Ambien is a controlled substance. Benadryl is over the counter, it’s not addictive, and it doesn’t hurt them. Most children only fly once a year so I definitely don’t think they’re going to build up a tolerance. You either don’t have children or you’re one of those people that stress over drugs in the drinking water.

  • cerenatee

    It’s funny that so many guys have opinions on how to manage kids on a flight when it’s usually the mothers I see trying to manage them. I’m going to say it again, Benadryl is over the counter, it’s not addictive, and it doesn’t hurt
    them. Most children only fly once a year so I definitely don’t think
    they’re going to build up a tolerance. If a child is lucky enough to sleep through a flight, I say go for it. It’s better than stressing them out for 4 hours trying to make them sit still when that kind of control may be beyond them. As a soldier married to another soldier, who are the parents of 3 boys – 1 in the military, 1 in college, and 1 in all advance classes in middle school – I’ve learned to take the path of least resistance.

  • guest

    Not for bad children of irresponsible parents. They both need to be kicked off the plane.

  • Peggy

    I fly in first class because of the size of the seats. I’m not a large person but even in coach it’s not big enough for me. I need my space. I like to be comfortable. not cramped. I willing to pay abit more for comfort!!! But I don’t want to pay out that kind of money for an unruly parent to let their child continue to kick the back of my seat,

  • willowbel .

    I’m a mother of three and know first hand what my kids are like on aircraft I would never ever put them on first class and waste all that money nor would I be happy on having paid top dollar to have someone’s kid screaming in my ear…airline companies need to start grouping families together so kids can entertain each other and parents won’t feel bad if their kid is playing up as they will be next to others in similar positions…