Tiny Children; Big, Scary Planes: Who CARES?

I flew Ryanair from Malaga to Marseilles a few weeks back, as you might remember. Ryainair’s seating policy – or rather, lack of one – takes you back to your youth, when how cool you were was determined by how quickly the seat next to you on the school but was taken.

So, there I was, nearly a full plane and still no one was sitting next to me in my row of three. (Gummy bear?) I felt like a loser while paradoxically praying that I would have the row to myself. I put on my headphones and gazed out the window at the luggage conveyor belt unloading bags – someone had checked in but somehow had forgotten actually to board the plane. This would mean another half hour on the tarmac. Great.

Then I felt a tug on my arm, as if perhaps my cat was drowning and reaching out for me to save her. I turned and there was a two year old girl, rigid, stubborn, scared to death, being dragged onto her mother’s lap at the end of my three-seat row.

There is a certain type of parent who sees this behavior as a wonderfully synergistic interaction that will no doubt help little precious ace his Harvard interview one day. They feel it’s important for everyone – including perfect strangers who are obviously otherwise occupied – to contribute to the raising of little precious. It takes a plane full of sunburned, hungover travelers to raise a child.

This type of parent, unfortunately, has ruined it for the rest of the parents out there who desperately want their children to sit down and shut up for the duration of the flight, but sometimes really just need you, the sunburned, hungover traveler, to be a team player for five freaking seconds before they absolutely lose it and stick the kid in the overhead compartment.

Luckily for everyone involved, the parents of this child were in the latter category. The withering look I was cultivating vanished when I saw this poor mother. It had been a long day, and she wasn’t getting any love from the swishy French steward, who clearly also had had a long day. It seems the little girl did not understand that she had to be seated and belted in order for the flight to take off – and for some reason, she saw me as her salvation.

I took her Dora the Explorer doll from the now-vacant seat next to me. I motioned for the swish to give me the orange safety demonstration belt he had been shaking in the girl’s face like a rattle. I wrapped Dora in the belt and placed her gently on the seat, and then held up the regular seat belt invitingly. The girl understood immediately, climbed off her mother and belted herself in. She took a few of my fingers in her tiny hand and smiled.

I thought the mother was going to cry with relief. The flight took off without a hitch as I read a Spanish story book to the girl, who was fascinated by my inability to speak the language she, too was trying to learn.

Upon descent, it was a different story. She wouldn’t get fooled again into the seatbelt, so her mother held onto her with all her might as the poor kid screamed bloody murder and bucked like a trapped animal. The dad, across the aisle, actually shed tears; the elderly couple on the other side of him, strangers as well, went into grandparent mode, to no avail. I’m sure other passengers were annoyed, but those of us who could see the naked terror in this child’s face were simply sympathetic.

By the time we had taxied to the gate, the little girl had passed out in her mother’s arms from pure exhaustion. She carefully got up and carried the child off the plane; dad was left to collect the scattered toys and carry the bags. I wanted to give them all hugs.

I was reminded of this heartbreaking story when I received a press release heralding what “over 50 moms, child psychologists and educators gathered on behalf of the Creative Child Awards to judge the best product in this year’s Kid’s Travel Safety category. Among all the worthy nominees, one product clicked with everyone – the innovative Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES) and winner of this year’s 2008 Creative Child Magazine Top Choice Award.” You can see it here – it’s basically a “harness for toddlers which loops around the back of the airplane seat and augments the regular seat belt.”

Now, I’m 100 percent certain that “over 50 moms, child psychologists and educators” know volumes more about children than I do. But in all my years of flying, I’ve seen a lot of kids get strapped into airplane seats. Most of them have had the same reaction as the little girl on my Ryanair flight. So why do they think that this harness, which goes over the head and has a cascade of straps covering the child’s front, be a Godsend?

They say it’s going to “turn any airplane seat into a safe airplane seat for your child!” They say it “takes one minute to install!”

OK, first off, have they actually ever tried to put this on a child who doesn’t want it? That’s going to be one long, harrowing, ear-splitting minute.

Secondly, if you’re in an airplane situation where being strapped in is a matter of life and death, guess what? You’re gonna die. No amount of woven nylon is going to change that.

In my extremely limited experience with children, it occurs to me that the parents in that first group I mentioned will immediately purchase something that’s FAA-approved and the recipient of so many (well-earned, I’m sure) awards. But the parents in that second group – the majority of parents out there – are going to take one look at this thing and laugh.

Again – I’m sure people whose lives are dedicated to the health and well-being of children know better than I do. But I see this CARES belt being relegated to the bottom of the diaper bag.


One thought on “Tiny Children; Big, Scary Planes: Who CARES?

  1. the terrible thing about traveling with children is that when the are truly tired, all bets are off on behavior. And air travel is exhausting for everyone.

    I’m glad you showed that family compassion, althought it doesn’t surprise me one bit. You are a sweetie!!

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