Thursday, August 6, 2009

Flying the Unfriendly Skies - Part 1 by Diane LeBleu

I’m a fairly seasoned travel mama having jetted with my first child for work, then with my first and second for pleasure, then with my first and second and third for obligatory family visits, and then with my first, second, third, and fourth child because I am a masochist. And all this all without the helpful hands of my husband. I traveled with them ALONE.

I’ve learned a few tricks over the years of air travel with tots. I will never get on an airplane without a DVD player. Some mothers can get away with books and crayons but that’s never been enough to kill the four hour trip from Dallas to Seattle. I’ve also learned that traveling with children you will be hated. No matter how cute you are, no matter how precious your children, no matter how tight you jeans, you will be greeted by fellow passengers and flight crew alike with irritation and dread. I know his because I used to be a hater. I would be on an airplane, safely wedged into my coach class seat, and a woman (never a man, I might add) will embark a plane with a baby or walking closely behind a toddler. I would roll my eyes with the rest of them, mutter under my breath ‘please, just not next to me, in front of me or behind me’, and resign myself to a long flight of crying, tantrums and seat kicking. Lisa Belkins of the New York Times Motherlode parenting blog posted a piece last December about a woman traveling with her children seeking advice about how to get through the day. A majority of the comments told her just to stay home. And those were the nice ones. (

I now have the greatest empathy for these traveling mothers, being one myself. I approach these trips with a great dread not knowing if I should throw myself on the mercy of my fellow passengers or go for the offensive strategy – I paid full price for my tickets so they can just kiss my ass!

I was looking at this most recent journey as a social experiment in sympathy and general good will. In my vast experience at making the travel from Texas (Austin) to Tacoma (via SeaTAc Airport), the trip from Seattle to Texas is much more peaceful, accommodating one than the trip northward. Why? What is the explanation behind this behavior? Why are the travelers more helpful and accommodating? I know in my heart it is because I live in ‘The Friendly State’ of Texas, where the nicest people in the U.S. live. So I theorize that when we are headed north, I am traveling with a majority of those that live in the Seattle area and likewise when I fly south, my fellow passengers are Texans. Getting off the plane in Seattle, there is no courtesy – if you don’t have your whole body in the aisle when the door to the plane opens, you can just sit back down and wait until the plane is empty because no one is letting you cut in. Too bad for you with the window seats. On the way to Texas, I am usually overcome with kindness from strangers offering help with my bags or an extra hand with the kids. And I was greeted with smiles. Who is nicer and more helpful to a woman traveling alone with her children. Will I be treated with disdain or will there be offers for help this time?

So here I am with my four children ages 11, 8, 4, and 3 laden with a double stroller, 3 heavy bags stuffed with a computer, DVD player, books, markers, snacks, drinks. Enough to safely pass an hour flight from Austin to Dallas and a four hour flight from Dallas to Seattle. But this time, I have no hair. Well, I have some, but it is mostly the fuzz of a baby duck (my baby head, as Caroline calls it) that I keep protected under a bandana and hat. Not ready for the world quite yet. I thought I would use this to my travel advantage this time. I clearly still have the cancer patient look and was hoping this would cancel out any bad will associated with the fact that I have four children boarding the plane with me.

Was I right? Did anyone go out of their way this time to help me and lend me an extra hand?
No. In fact, the only offers of help I got was getting on the plane in Austin to Dallas, the woman in front of me asked if she could assist and help with some bags. And it turns out I knew her! She owns the child hair salon that we frequent, Pigtails and Crewcuts. She had her two kids and husband with her and her profession obviously predisposed her to be understanding. Getting off the plane in Dallas, the man sitting behind us helped carry one of my bags to the front as I wrangled everyone off the plane. He clearly was a Texan.

Boarding the plane in Dallas for the Seattle bound leg, I saw the sigh and exchange of glances between the two women flight attendants as they took measure of me and my brood. I overheard one say to the other “It’s all right, we can take turns” like working in the area we are sitting would be some great hardship. Sky waitresses.

Then Caroline has a fifteen minute fit that lasted forever. She was ticked off because I wouldn’t let her wander around the plane. She finally fell asleep in my arms and I was too traumatized from the ordeal to enjoy the peace. After Caroline work up, I headed to the bathroom way in the back of the plane never making eye contact with any of my fellow travelers. I took Caroline with me, thinking a diversion would kill a few minutes of the still 2 long hours left in the flight and offer a change of scenery. Well, a change of scenery is exactly what the line of people outside the toilets got as the flight attendant opened the door on me mid-squat as Caroline had reinstituted her screaming fit in the bathroom. OHMYGOD. “I’m sooooo sorry!” she apologized, “I thought your little girl had gotten locked in alone”. Right – she’s 3 feet tall, there’s no way she could reach the lock. Sky waitresses. Get me off this plane.

As we were getting ready to land, the flight attendant came by one last time pausing at my aisle and looking at the floor in disgust. A few fruit loops had gotten in the aisle. I had done a pretty good job this time keeping food off the floor and seats. It didn’t look as if we had been sitting there for 4 hours. I apologized and said I was just getting ready to pick up the errant snacks up. She said ‘I just need to know if I need to call ahead to arrange the cleaning crew’. Sky waitresses.
So we finally made it – me not making eye contact with a single person the entire rest of the way. No one offered any helping hands getting off the plane either. On the other hand, no one was actually hostile, so I have to give them that. And I have to fly home next week. Part Two of my social experiment will be in play. Will the passengers headed south be more helpful and kind? I hope so. I also think a valium wouldn’t be such a bad idea either.

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