Flying with kids can be nerve-wracking under the very best of circumstances. Even when all parties involved are being fairly cooperative (meaning, not just your children, but also the flight staff and all the potentially irritable passengers), it can be tough to keep everything under control. But what if your toddler has a meltdown or the airline has seated you two aisles away from your kindergartener? We've all heard stories of families getting booted off of flights for seemingly unfair reasons. So what are your rights as a parent on an airplane?
The issue is a complicated one, even though federal regulations do exist protecting parents and kids on planes (more on that below). That's because flight staff can't always be counted on to enforce these policies (more on that below, too). It's not fair, but it is the reality.
"Parents deserve peace of mind when traveling and that includes not having to get stressed out about how their children will behave," Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp, an organization that helps provide legal services to airline passengers, tells Romper.
To that end, as the saying goes, "forewarned is forearmed" (meaning, the more educated you are about your rights, the better equipped you are to fight for them). So I took a look at several of the most common challenges parents have to deal with during flights, and what the actual rules are regarding how to handle them. The skies might not always be kid-friendly, but you can try to make them as accommodating as possible!
1. Crying Babies
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most airlines don't have any official rules on the books regarding crying babies, as an article on Today explained.
That doesn't mean airlines don't realize that shrieking infants aren't often an issue of contention on flights, of course. (In 2016, JetBlue even ran a promotion called “FlyBabies” which gave passengers 25 percent off their next ticket every time a baby cried on a particular flight, reported Today.) It just means there aren't any official guidelines — which is good and bad, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, there's no hard and fast rule banning cranky tots from air travel; on the other, this gives flight staff the freedom to sometimes handle situations in less than ideal ways.
Case in point: Arielle Noa Charnas, who claims she was asked to leave the first class section of a Delta flight with her "screaming" 9-month-old baby and retreat to the back of the plane because of her fellow passengers' complaints, as Us Weekly reported.
"I started crying because I was so stressed and anxious and instead of the stewardess being helpful and compassionate she instead made the situation worse," Charnas wrote in an Instagram post.
In the end, Charnas refused to move. And when Delta heard about what happened, they offered the family refunded tickets plus $300 each.
In other situations, as with Susan Peirez, a woman who was recently filmed yelling at a mother and her crying baby before their plane even took off, the flight staff might take a family's side. When Peirez, who insisted on being seated farther away from a young mother and her baby, threatened the flight attendant (telling her "You might not have a job tomorrow"), she earned herself a one-way ticket off the plane.
So really, what's going to happen on your flight if your baby is fussy depends largely on the temperament of your flight staff and fellow passengers.
2. Sitting Together
It seems only fair that kids and parents should always be allowed to sit together on airplanes without having to pay extra for the privilege (after all, it's not like a stranger would want to sit next to your cranky toddler anyway). But even though the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2016 was supposed to guarantee that families could fly together without fees, "the rulemaking for this law has never taken place," Charles Leocha, co-founder of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United, told CNBC.
That could be why occasionally there are incidents like the one that happened last year when two families with small children were removed from a Jetstar flight because the parents asked to be seated next to their children (Jetstar claimed the family "had taken other passengers' seats," according to The Sun, but various witnesses defended the families, saying they weren't being rude or disruptive).
Some airlines do try to be more accommodating than others (by letting them pre-board to find seats together or asking other passengers to move). Do some research before booking a flight, and if you can't secure seats together, family travel expert Suzanne Kelleher told CNBC that your best bet is to check online 24 hours before your flight (when you should be able to see your seat assignments).
"If you see that your seats are not together, call your airline's customer service center."
Whatever you do, be careful about getting into any interactions with flight staff that could escalate into a high-tension situation.
As top Connecticut criminal defense attorney Mark Sherman tells Romper, the consequences of disrupting a flight are far more serious than any crimes committed on the ground.
"Intimidating or interfering with a flight crew member or flight attendant is a federal crime that exposes you to up to 20 years in prison," he says. "There are no first time offender programs or slaps on wrists for these federal crimes. The stakes are extremely high.”
3. Car Seats
Unfortunately, the use of car seats on airplanes is another thing you can't necessarily count on airlines to be cooperative about, despite the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory kid seat rule which states that "passengers who buy seats for children under the age of two have the federal right to use aircraft-approved child restraints," as aviation safety consultant John Goglia writes in a Forbes article.
Even if you're in full compliance with all regulations, there's no guarantee you won't come across a flight attendant who refuses to let you board with a car seat (as mother Jenny Creek found out when she was reportedly forced to hold her one-year-old daughter on her lap during an American Airlines flight, according to Forbes, to cite just one of many examples). There are a few things you can do to help prevent the likelihood of this happening, however. Make sure that your child restraint system is approved for use by your airline and clearly labeled, Goglia says, and learn how to properly install it ahead of time (you can find all the info you need on the FAA's website).
Another tip: Alert the gate agent in advance that you'll be traveling with an approved child restraint system and ask for their help in ensuring you're allowed to bring it on board.
"I've heard from a number of parents that this pro-active strategy has worked," writes Goglia.
"Have your documentation ready and be prepared to show the aircraft-approved label. If you get to the gate early enough, there is time to work out misunderstandings before you board the flight."
4. Kids Acting Up During Takeoff
Parents of preschoolers everywhere cringed when a family was kicked off Cathay Pacific flight in 2015 because their rambunctious 3-year-old wouldn't stay in his seat or allow his seat belt to be fastened. This kind of behavior is of course absolutely typical for the average tot, but as a spokesperson for the FAA told Today, it's well within the pilot's rights to bounce a family from a flight if a child won't settle down and fasten his belt.
It all comes down to safety (both your child's and the safety of the other passengers on the flight).
5. Walking Your Baby Up And Down The Aisle
What happens if your little one starts to lose it after you've reached cruising altitude? Assuming your fellow passengers don't make a huge fuss, you should be able to walk up and down the aisle or stand in the back and bounce your baby.
"While technically the crew has the ability to remove passengers at their discretion, unless your child is causing a safety concern, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about," says Zillmer.
"If your child is anxious or crying, you should feel free to walk up and down the aisle to soothe her — as long as the seatbelt sign is switched off, you have nothing to worry about."
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.