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Supporting a no-cry zone in the skies

Why flights with unhappy babies are stressful for all passengers.
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A little preparation can make travelling with infants a stress-free experience, according to a well-known website for parents. And while their recommendations to book a non-stop flight and take a couple of emergency pacifiers are worth considering, the difference between a painless journey and a painful journey is often determined by the airline itself. This is something I experienced firsthand during a recent visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka with a six-month old baby. Forget the two-hour delay in the outward journey, or a similar two-hour delay on the way back, not even the usual courtesy of ‘family first’ boarding was followed. And that’s where the carrier – SriLankan Airlines – risked losing my future custom.

Of course, there is always a chance that I got unlucky here and Sudath Kuruppu, area manager of SriLankan Airlines in Dubai, assured me that “delays due to operational reasons are inevitable at times” and passengers with children are normally boarded first as a policy. But even then, I have to admit that my faith as a customer has been somewhat knocked and a lesson has been learned for the future. To provide a little guidance for the next time, I was interested to read that US-based Kids First Fund announced the results of its Family Friendly Airline Award recently.

After much deliberation, six carriers were shortlisted for the prize by a team of travel industry leaders, including Peter Harbison, executive chairman of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA). Each of the finalists – namely Emirates, Qatar Airways, Jetstar, Kingfisher, TAM and Air Transat – has understood that keeping a baby happy is not only a good thing for parents, but benefits other passengers too. And their innovations are awe-inspiring, whether its Emirates offering a colourful rucksack with plush toys, Dr Seuss books and abundant onboard video games, or Qatar Airways with its special kids zones at the airport and variety of toys, meals and movies to pamper the younger traveller. Staff training is even provided by the Doha-based carrier to help autistic child passengers.

This proves once again that Middle Eastern carriers are helping to dictate global standards rather than following them. But in the end, the winner was Canada’s Air Transat, which impressed the judges with a kids club that invites children to enjoy benefits such as welcome kits, prize drawings, onboard birthday celebrations and dedicated counters at the airport. “Judging the nominations provided a global view of the services that airlines provide for children and families,” I was informed by Jay Sorensen, president of the Kids First Fund. “By providing services to enhance travel for children and parents, savvy airlines know they are also addressing the needs of business travellers. Happy and contented child travellers create a better cabin environment for all.”

His last point could be more pertinent than you think, because there’s a domino effect with unhappy babies and children on flights, which extends not only to parents but fellow passengers too. In fact, a recent survey of 5000 travellers by British company HoldidayExtras.com found that 83% of respondents were pushing for adult-only sections on planes. And that’s not all. A vocal 32% went even further to state that children should be outright banned from long-haul flights. A previous survey by Skyscanner last year backed these views; with nearly 60% of travellers wanting a child-free cabin and a quarter saying they would prefer their flight to be kid-free. So, for the sake of parents and apparently the wider travelling community too, let’s hope the standards being set by Air Transat, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Jetstar, Kingfisher and TAM resonate across the global airline industry.

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