Baby on board? Not any more…

1 Jul

It’s a noise worse than pneumatic drills, Chinese water torture, worse than drum’n’bass, and even worse than Ed Miliband on a particularly nasally day singing a medley of Justin Bieber hits. It’s the sound of a baby crying. Not just a little bit of whining, but full-on infant tantrum screaming. Now, imagine being stuck with that soundtrack from hell for 11 hours on a long-haul flight.

Malaysia Airlines was in the news this week for banning babies from its first-class flights. Children under two years old are already banned from its Boeing 747-400 jets but it has now been confirmed that infants would not be allowed to fly on their fleet of Airbus A380 super jumbos either. Parents with infants can still fly economy or business class, and children over two were still welcome – or at least allowed – on first-class flights.

CEO of Malaysia Airlines

CEO of Malaysia Airlines

CEO of Malaysia Airlines Tengku Azmil defended the decision on Twitter. He managed to explain the motivation behind the policy in less than 140 characters, by saying: “Hv many complaints from 1st class pax dat dey spend money on 1st class & can’t sleep due to crying infants.”

Fair enough, you’d think, but it is apparent that the move has not been welcomed by everyone.

What is a seemingly straightforward matter has proved a surprisingly divisive one and has drawn a torrent of rage among online commentators, and not just from Mumsnet either. Joe Public virtually queued up to post hundreds and hundreds of comments on news websites that published the story. What was most bewildering was how it seemed to turn people from both camps a little bit crazy and highly-strung, almost as if they’d been, say, kept awake for hours on end by a screaming child.

People who supported the ban on on-board infants decided to strengthen their argument by proposing all sorts of common sense alternatives to allowing babies onto first-class flights.

The airline CEO has already dismissed sound-blocking headphones as being a solution, as he says they already offer them to first-class passengers but they don’t successfully block out the sound of a baby crying. So a suggestion offered by online posters was a soundproof space at the back of the plane to accommodate all underage children. So, we chalk out a few feet of space, wall in all babies and toddlers, and allow whatever potential annihilation to ensue – regardless of the possibility that this will lead to suffocation for some, and for others lifelong claustrophobia.

Crying babyOne suggestion was spending the money that would have been used to buy the first-class infant ticket on employing a nanny to travel with the baby in economy class separately. (Thanks to the Daily Mail comment pages for that one.)

Another potential compromise was for the staff to administer a powerful sedative to babies, at the right dose to last the duration of the flight, or perhaps a few hours more in case of delays. 

People opposed to the baby ban came up with slightly more ridiculous responses. They seemed to suggest that excluding infants from flights was a slippery slope to banning all ‘undesirables’. 

It was interesting to discover who counted as an ‘undesirable’. Many were the usual suspects when it comes to unpleasant flying experiences, such as people who had loud conversations, people with BO, people with smelly breath, people who listened to their iPods with the volume up too high, and people who were so fat that they took up some of the next seat.

However, some people implied that equally relevant to this list of are people from minority groups.

Comments posted on the news story on the CNN website included: “What if they banned women on their planes?  What if they banned blacks?  Aren’t babies a protected class?”. I’m not entirely sure what a ‘protected class’ is, but presumably it is something akin to an ‘endangered species’.

The news report in Christian Science Monitor attracted some interesting comments. One of many similar examples was by a poster called Deedee, who said: “I have an even better idea. No babies, kids, teenagers, old ppl, fat ppl, gays, minorities or unattractive ppl allowed on first class… Wouldnt want anyone to feel uncomfortable in anyway”.

Even allowing for it to be laced with irony, it can’t be denied that Deedee is listing whom she – or he – believes could be defined as uncomfortable company on a plane. So that includes babies, for being too disruptive with their uncontrollable crying, minorities for being too ethnic, and gays for being too, er, gay. Or perhaps what Deedee is saying is that this is the beginning of a worrying trend. First we restrict how babies can fly, and next thing you know we’re conducting social and ethnic cleansing in the skies. 

An article written by Pamela Gifford and published on the Yahoo News page (that haven of hard-hitting journalism) also focused on the discriminatory aspect of the airline’s policy. Gifford said: “A long time ago, blacks were banned from restaurants, some schools, etc., because some people didn’t understand them and were uncomfortable around them. This is a similar situation where a select few individuals don’t understand infants and are uncomfortable around them.”

Except it isn’t a similar situation, is it? I don’t think what we’ve got here are a “select few individuals” who just “don’t understand infants”. They understand infants perfectly. They understand that infants will cry and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it, short of action that would alarm the NSPCC.

She finishes her article with: “How can we expect children to be decent, nondiscriminatory people when so many others send messages such as this?”

 How can we expect children to be decent, nondiscriminatory people when writers like her can in all seriousness equate airline policy regarding babies flying first-class with decades of racial oppression and segregation in the mid-twentieth century? It reveals either an utter lack of understanding or trivialising of the historical context of Jim Crow laws. My guess is that it’s the former.

Baby looking out of an aeroplane windowDespite the slightly misleading title of this article, the ‘no infants on first-class’ policy isn’t actually a new one. It has been in place since 2004. The ban has gone ahead without drawing attention for seven years, which makes this sudden outcry even more inexplicable. Besides, when it comes to the issue of babies and first-class airline tickets, these days most of us can only afford to have one or the other, so, ultimately, it’s a moot point.

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