Simon Calder: Child-free flights... and why not end free alcohol, too?

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The Independent Travel

Say what you like about Radio 2: it remains consistently the best listen of the BBC's national radio networks, not least the excellent Jeremy Vine programme on weekday lunchtimes. On Thursday, his 1pm debate was on the concept of child-free flights. It soon morphed into a tirade against inconsiderate flyers who recline their seats without regard to the passenger behind, nor their meal/drink/laptop. But the central question posed by Vine – "Could child-free flights be a popular and profitable venture?" – set me thinking about whether, and how, it would work.

First, the problem: flying is an uncomfortable enough experience for adults, let alone babes-in-arms. Combine an alien environment with the legal requirement to sit still at certain stages of the flight, and the pain caused to young ears by changes in cabin pressure, and you have the recipe for an upset infant.

Older children simply get bored non-rigid, and may decide that the best way to pass the time is by arguing, fighting or repetitively kicking the seat in front in a 21st-century adaptation of Chinese water torture.

Personally, I find many children behave much better on flights than do adults, partly because they do not see it as their duty to drink the trolley dry of alcohol. But I accept that finding on an overnight flight that you are adjacent to a toddler is in the same league as sharing an armrest with an especially obese passenger, or one whose personal hygiene standards do not match your own.

Other areas of the travel industry have a lot of experience at keeping out children. Some Caribbean resorts are adult-only; and the proprietor of a smart South Coast boutique hotel told me that he uses pricing to try to deter families from staying. Similarly some of Britain's train operators seem to want to minimise the number of children in first class by charging adult prices, for example for Weekend First upgrades.

Next, how would it work? Banning child flyers altogether would be outrageous. But a partial prohibition is worth trying. These days, the airlines need every penny they can get. Business travellers and well-heeled holidaymakers could be prepared to pay a premium for a flight free of kicking and screaming. And if people on child-free services are prepared to pay extra, then fares on other flights may come down.

The only circumstances I can envisage in which an airline could insist "no children" would be on a route with plenty of flights. British Airways, for example, has eight departures a day from Heathrow to New York JFK; and if families were banned from the 3.15pm service, they would not have to wait long for the 4pm.

The idea would be easy to test, as BA showed 20 years ago. Until 1988 all its flights had a smoking area, in which I gleefully travelled while misspending my youth. Then the airline started to test the then-preposterous concept of "smoke-free" flights. Almost apologetically, BA deemed one of the daily Los Angeles services non-smoking. Many passengers loved it, and smoking was soon stubbed out on all UK airlines.

Suppose an airline were brave enough to start some child-free flights. The downside: some families would be inconvenienced by not being able to travel on the exact flight they wanted.

But if significant numbers of families felt disadvantaged, this could persuade other airlines to come in offering family-friendly flights. The market – you, me and a couple of hundred million other people – will decide.

Any child-free trial should be accompanied by an end to free alcoholic drinks on flights. The current policy on many airlines of allowing passengers to ask for as much free beer, wine and spirits as they can swig is ridiculous, given our propensity to over-indulge and the prevalence of drink-fuelled air rage.

For the individual, you can make a rational case for putting away as much as possible – you've "paid for it", after all – at the expense, in both senses, of other passengers. Ban free alcohol, and fewer adults will end up behaving like children because of inflight inebriation.

Incidents and accidents

Whatever next – inflight karaoke? That notion was seriously proposed by a "paper airline" called Backpackers Xpress, which promised pizzas, beer and out-of-tune crooning all the way from Melbourne to Manchester.

I was reminded of this and other heroic failures in travel when I read "A Brief History of Wanderlust". The travel magazine celebrates its 15th birthday this month, and reading "Mishaps and misadventures" left me astonished that the magazine ever got published. "I've just been robbed in Mendoza, so have no passport, camera, money or tickets ... I think this trip will have to be cancelled," wrote Chris Moss from Argentina. And after the photographer Geoffrey Roy had spent a long assignment on the Amazon, a villain at an airport relieved him of the film – and his camera. The editor-in-chief, Lyn Hughes (above), is still nursing injuries sustained while on safari in Zambia and at a cattle drive in Wyoming . I hope the next 15 years prove safer.

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