Why should child-free plane passengers be expected to move for families?

Families travelling by plane need to plan ahead to get their preferred seating arrangement – and it’s not up to solo passengers to accommodate them, says Lucy Thackray

Friday 28 October 2022 09:36 BST
Vogue Williams and Spencer Matthews have vented about a passenger who wouldn’t swap plane seats
Vogue Williams and Spencer Matthews have vented about a passenger who wouldn’t swap plane seats (Getty)

Kids on planes. A reality, a pressure-cooker – and sometimes a delight. As a child-free person and frequent flyer, I can’t count the number of times my heart has sunk at the sight of a toddler climbing into the seat beside or in front of me, only to find myself cooing through an impromptu game of peek-a-boo or smiling at their cute aviation questions hours later.

Then there are the other times when, four hours into a 12-hour night flight to Bangkok, the six-year-old four rows in front is playing on a gaming device. At full volume. With no headphones. Often cabin crew are reluctant to intervene at moments like this unless it’s a full in-aisle meltdown – when I asked in this case, a Thai Airways flight attendant merely grimaced and said: “It’s a child.”

There was the three-year-old who didn’t seem at all pleased that his parents had booked him a plum business class seat home from Rome. He screamed his lungs out from the Alps to the Channel as I wondered why the manufacturer of my noise-cancelling headphones hadn’t tot-tested them. That said, I’m no monster – I do understand that flying with kids is tricky, families need holidays as much as the rest of us, and that no parent wants their kid to make a scene.

What can be worse than the little darlings themselves are the parents. This week, a woman on TikTok divided opinion when she posted a video about her decision not to move seats on a plane when a family asked her to. “I’m not a villain,” Maresa Friedman insisted in her caption, clarifying that she, too, is a mother, but on this occasion she was travelling for work and had selected a first class seat at the front of the plane for specific reasons. In several follow-up videos, she defended herself from commenters calling her “heartless” or “selfish”.

Ms Friedman is not the only person to spark heated opinions on the subject. Model and Made in Chelsea WAG Vogue Williams made the headlines in August when she recounted the story of a man (presumably a solo traveller) who wasn’t keen to swap seats so she could sit with her husband and child on a flight from Gibraltar to London. In telling the tale, she wasn’t mildly annoyed but outright enraged. She called the offending passenger “a piece of s***” and “an absolute t**” as she fumed over the interaction (which saw the man in question eventually agree to move seats).

Things I can understand about Vogue’s story: being worried about not sitting next to your child, feeling flustered with more than one child on a flight, feeling frustrated with yourself for not paying attention to your seat booking. (Williams said on the podcast episode with the story that it was “her mistake” for booking herself on to a different row than her husband.)

What I can’t understand is her astonishment and her fury that this poor bloke – who may have booked his particular seat for a reason, may be a nervous flyer, or may be going through something less visible than your Instagram Family Drama – did not jump to immediately offer his seat the minute he saw the parents sitting apart. I can picture his predicament now: you’ve settled into your seat as a party of one, perhaps opened your newspaper, tucked your belongings neatly into the seat pocket. You’re comfy and aisle-adjacent, as you booked to be. And then a glossy reality-show dynasty descends and demands you shift or risk facing the court of public opinion.

In fact, the man’s response to Mr Matthews – “Yes, Spencer, I would mind” – suggests he knew exactly who the brand-partnership-happy couple was. Possibly he thought that between their probably-gifted sun holiday and private transfer to one of three luxury UK and Ireland properties, they might swallow their disappointment and sit an aisle away from each other. I suspect he was annoyed by the sense of entitlement – by the inference that he, minus a trio of social-media-ready cherubs, was essentially a non-person – before the couple even got around to asking the question.

The issue here is not if it is best and right for young families to sit together on flights, I think we can all give that a resounding “Yes”. It’s the entitlement. It’s the stropping around, summoning flight attendants and public shaming following a mistake that was, as she herself admitted, Williams’ own. The fact that she went on to reference an “angel sent from God” on another flight, who saw she was in a middle seat and offered her their aisle seat, shows that she believes families on planes are VIPs, and others are just pawns to be rearranged around them. It’s fair to be annoyed if somebody is rude and unreasonable to you; it’s not fair to be annoyed that they don’t fall over themselves to get out of “your” seat, perhaps offering up the shirt on their back as a makeshift muslin. In Reddit parlance, Vogue, I’m sorry to say, YTA.

It’s fair to be annoyed if somebody is rude and unreasonable to you; it’s not fair be annoyed that they don’t fall over themselves to get out of ‘your’ seat, perhaps offering up the shirt on their back as a makeshift muslin

In another travel story the same month, a man took to Reddit to vent about his annoyance that he had paid extra for a front-of-cabin “bulkhead” seat on a transatlantic flight, only to be moved further back so a parent and child could sit there. “I don’t know, I just got so pissed,” said the exasperated passenger. In my opinion, it’s up to both airlines and parents to do the organising in advance to ensure families are comfortably and safely seated together – not fellow passengers.

If the front row is best for families (as it is for people with mobility issues), then child-free flyers should not be able to pay extra to book it. If families have accidentally booked seats apart, they should notify cabin crew before boarding to allow them to do the passenger-juggling, not expect others around them to put their own comfort and forward-planning aside. (I say this as someone who is very much a Window Seat Person, and regularly pays more to choose my seat.)

If Willams had been travelling alone with a child, I’d perhaps feel more sympathy. People who don’t offer their seats on trains to a parent alone with a baby enrages me, too. I can’t imagine the stress and anxiety of travel as a single parent. However, in this case, one parent was seated in a window seat with one small child next to them, while the other had a baby and a small child in the row just opposite. The couple was close enough to swap infants or supplies if needed – and, “rude” or not, this man was hardly causing them to sit a plane’s length apart for the under-three-hour journey.

As the influencer said at the top of her rant, having a seat booked in a different row was her mistake. I’d bet you anything she didn’t go into the interaction with the other passenger with that energy. Vogue missed two opportunities to plan ahead for the moment: booking seats and talking to cabin crew in the airport. The man she was angry with merely booked a seat and expected to sit in it. Just as we should all heed her cries that flying with kids “is a nightmare”, Ms Williams should understand that each passenger is a person, with their own reasons for choosing their pre-arranged seat – and a reasonable expectation of a confrontation-free flight.

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