As our daughter Cleo turns 14 months old, my wife, Sally, and I are proud to report that she says "Mama" and "Dada," stands up all by herself, and has flown a total of 36 times, including to the Caribbean and Europe. Most of our experience flying with our infant has been positive. On more than one occasion, Cleo has happily let flight attendants stroll up and down the aisle with her and even take her up to visit the first-class area, where we could only guess, from our seats back in coach, how she was getting on.
But flying with a baby can also be an ordeal, especially in the United States, where many airlines these days seem ambivalent about their youngest passengers. It's increasingly common, for instance, for airlines to deny families with young children the opportunity to board the plane first. Fellow passengers can be even more intolerant of babies: I've watched travelers go completely pale when—loaded down with an infant, a cumbersome car seat, and an overstuffed diaper bag from which the melody "Farmer in the Dell" was escaping—I hesitated in front of their seat just long enough to ask Sally if the next row back was ours.
To cope with these and other travails of flying with an infant, we've put together a set of strategies we use to ensure that the flight is not only as safe as we can make it for our child but also as pleasant as possible for everyone else on the aircraft.
The back of the plane is noisier, vibrates more, and is less convenient for deplaning than the front.
Brush-up on how to install the safety seat if you’re taking one before you fly. Safety experts recommend buying a separate seat and bringing a car seat, even when they’re young enough to ride on your lap.
If your child is particularly active, a bulkhead row eliminates the possibility that her Mr. Worm toy will land in the glass of anybody sitting in front of you. But we don't like bulkhead rows, because you can't have most of your carry-ons near you during takeoff and landing, when you tend to need them most. We don't like the bassinets that bolt to the bulkheads, either, because they're so flimsy that you'll worry constantly about sudden turbulence.
You become most aware of how much baggage a traveling infant requires when you arrive at the airport and unload everything on the curb. If you're lucky, a check-in or a skycap will be right there. As much as you may have disdained these in your pre-baby days, be grateful for them now and tip accordingly ($1 per bag is standard). If neither is available, then your stroller becomes invaluable. Throughout your trip, you'll use it only occasionally for an infant and more often as a private baggage cart. Every airline we've flown will let you check it at the gate. Get a tag for it from the gate staff, and drop it off just before you step through the door of the plane, where it will be returned to you at your destination, hopefully in time for you to make your next connection.
Because families with small children are often not allowed to preboard, infants are now in the thick of the boarding fray—and more at risk for the injuries associated with it. There's the danger that somebody will drop a carry-on on them while trying to move it into or out of an overhead bin or smack them with a wayward bag when boarding or getting off the plane.
One way to minimize the risk is to have one adult board as early as possible, carrying the safety seat and anything that will allow you to stake a claim for the bin directly over your seat. Then, after everyone else has boarded, the other adult and the infant can make a late entrance. This also minimizes the time that your baby has to be aboard.
One of our most unpleasant experiences traveling with Cleo was on a flight from New York to Seattle that was supposed to last five hours but ended up taking two days. We sat on the runway at LaGuardia for three hours before taking off, made an unscheduled stop in Nashville because we were low on fuel, and spent an unplanned night in Dallas, where the airline refused to release our bags. At midnight, we had to hire a taxi to help us scour convenience stores for baby food and supplies. Needless to say, we now carry a two-days' supply of everything.
During descent and takeoff, we usually keep Cleo sucking on something to relieve ear pressure—a bottle, a pacifier, or her favorite: the plastic seat-back safety card. We give her decongestants only if she's had a cold. So far, her ears have bothered her only once, when we made a quick descent for our unscheduled landing in Nashville. And even then, she complained less than many adults on that flight.
People seem so put off by seeing a diaper being changed that we change Cleo's in the cabin only if we are sitting three across in an aisle-window row and no one we might offend can see us. On short flights, if she isn't uncomfortable, we wait until we get into the terminal; on longer flights, we try to get in and out of the lavatories as fast as we can. I find that a particular challenge, because although Cleo has been reluctant to accept the fold-down plastic shelf in the lavatory as a changing table, she has discovered that if she clings tightly enough to my neck, it functions quite nicely as an infant trampoline.
On an early flight with Cleo, we had a confrontation with a flight attendant who told us we would have to face the car seat forward, because it took up less room that way, even though the FAA recommends that car seats be less than 16 inches wide and face the rear for children less than 20 pounds, which Cleo was at the time. We refused to comply and later, after we complained to the airline, received a written apology—but no explanation why a flight attendant would not know something as basic as the FAA recommendations regarding child safety.
You can have a good experience, or a bad one, on any airline. Mostly, it depends on how stressed the ground and cabin crew are. (This is a reason to fly off-peak.) In general, though, we've found that the same few airlines that have good reputations overall tend to be the most child-friendly. They are mostly international, especially Asian, although Swissair and Virgin Atlantic are among the European carriers that rate high.
In the United States, the most child-friendly airlines are often the small upstarts that are trying to win customers by the novel but effective strategy of being nice. The best example we've found is JetBlue, a no-frills carrier that flies primarily between New York's JFK and cities in Florida and on the West Coast.
Many airports provide some sort of play facilities for young children. A handful do it exceptionally well: Philadelphia International Airport's Please Touch Museum, San Jose International Airport's make-believe control tower, and Boston's Logan Airport's child-oriented facilities and programs are three we like. We've found, though, that just about any airport can be made child-friendly if you find an empty gate near a bathroom with changing facilities and let your child crawl around—all the while telling yourself that a few germs are a good thing.