Indignity Vol. 2, No. 103: Fussy Babies Fly First Class


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 103: Fussy Babies Fly First Class

The sky is full of whining.

BABIES ARE THE only honest air travelers and that is why other people fear and resent them. The baby recognizes that it is being put through a boring, uncomfortable, and arbitrary ordeal, one that violates what it has already—in just a few weeks or months, with an extremely underdeveloped brain—come to understand as the basic minimum standards of life. It finds itself confined, contorted, exposed to bad smells and loud noises. The baby screams, as anyone else would be screaming if they hadn't been taught to ignore the truth of their own senses.

Adults—trapped in a seat inside a pressurized aluminum tube inside an obligation to travel somewhere inside a lifetime of accumulated legal regulation and social pressure—seethe at the babies and then, if given a chance, complain about the babies to the newspaper. One Jakob Miller of Staten Island, for instance, complained to the New York Times about sharing a transatlantic flight with a baby: “At first, we just tried to ignore the noise and focus on our own conversation, but as the hours went by, the baby’s cries became louder and more frequent.”

Miller was weighing in, specifically, on the question, posed by the Times' Travel section, of whether or not babies should be allowed to fly in the first-class sections of airplanes. He believes they should not. “First class is a premium space where passengers pay extra for added comfort and relaxation," he told the Times. "The presence of a baby, with their potential crying and fussing, would disrupt the peaceful atmosphere and ruin the experience for other passengers.”

But what experience? And which other passengers? The Times put the question of whether babies should fly first-class to someone who was supposed to be an etiquette expert:

Before booking a first-class ticket, parents must make an informed decision as to whether they think their child will be a disruption, said Elaine Swann, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol, an etiquette school in Carlsbad, Calif. This means being conscious of the length of the flight, the time of day that they’re flying and the age of the child. If it seems like the child will be a disruption to others, parents should select another section of the plane, Ms. Swann suggested.

“This is where we need to think about how our choices and our behavior can impact others’ well-being,” Ms. Swann said.

It did not seem to occur to Elaine Swann, of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, Calif., that "another section of the plane" would also have people in it, and that etiquette might require consideration of those people's well-being, too. The Times story was meant to make people angry at each other, but it sought to organize that anger along an axis pitting people with children against people without children. It assumed, as a starting point, that the natural thing to do with unpleasantness and discomfort would be to dump it onto the people in coach.

The different seating sections on airplanes are explicitly named by their "class," but the class element of the question was written mostly by implication, or through evasion. The word "coach" only appeared once in the article, in an anecdote about a passenger who bailed out of business class to avoid sitting near a baby. Miller declared the babies did not belong in the "premium space" he'd paid for; where the babies did belong went unsaid.

One person in the story, a lawyer who'd gotten an upgrade to first class with her baby, did acknowledge the hierarchy, asking "Does first class buy you the right to avoid hoi polloi and their kids, or do you need to fly private for that?” But the controversy in the piece wasn't even about whether rich people have the right to avoid the noisy babies of the lower orders, it was about whether they have the right to avoid the noisy babies of the other people who can afford first-class tickets, by sending them back to the crowded confines of coach.

From a utilitarian point of view, it would be better for everyone if babies were in first class. The first-class section offers more space and more comfortable amenities for soothing a disgruntled baby, and if the baby yells anyway, there are fewer people nearby to hear it. (And those people can afford noise-canceling headphones.)

Assuming, that is, that the first-class section really has those amenities. The Times story opened with an anecdote that got odder and odder under examination:

Nurhachi Che, a 37-year-old I.T. consultant from Cherry Hill, N.J., was looking forward to two hours of uninterrupted work on her first-class flight from Philadelphia to Kentucky in February. Prepped to conquer all her work tasks, she carefully unpacked her laptop, her AirPods and her noise-canceling headphones. And then a mother and her baby plopped into the first-class seat next to Ms. Che’s, and she was pretty sure her undisturbed flight was doomed.

Even after putting in her earbuds and then noise-canceling headphones over them, Ms. Che said she was unable to block out the sound of the baby’s cries. When, an hour before landing, the baby and her mother finally fell asleep, the infant started slipping into Ms. Che’s lap.

In what sort of first-class seating arrangement can a baby slide off of one person's lap into the lap of a neighboring stranger? This story wasn't about a baby intruding on someone's cocoon of mood lighting, champagne, and lie-flat seat pods from New York to Paris. Che was complaining about being stuck next to a baby on a short-hop flight from Philadelphia to Kentucky, in what was presumably a cramped regional jet.

If the baby fell asleep an hour before landing, moreover, then the baby was silent for half the flight. The original complaint unravels and becomes something else: The "first-class" designation was a marginal status upgrade, not a token of actual comfort and luxury. The baby's only crime was that it dared to destroy its seatmate's illusions.

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