In praise of... babies on planes: why tiny cute passengers on flights are a positive

Thinking a crying baby on a plane is a saddening sign? Quite the contrary. It's emphatically a good thing, argues Katrina Conaglen

In praise of babies on planes: why tiny cute passengers are a positiveIn praise of babies on planes: why tiny cute passengers are a positive
In praise of babies on planes: why tiny cute passengers are a positive

In praise of... is a weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.

There is an anecdote - possibly apocryphal - about an English comic actor-cum-late night talk show host on a flight. The celebrity was sat in business class, the seat empty beside him, when just ahead of the plane taking off a woman embarked, carrying a screaming infant. The flight attendant, mortified, lead the woman with the babe-in-arms into the seat next to our celebrity. The whole cabin drew breath - how would the famous man cope with this wailing baby? But he put on his noise-controlling headphones and slept through the flight, to the surprise and the delight of his passengers...

...until they landed, and it was time to deplane, when the exasperated mother shoved the child into the celebrity's lap as she struggled to get her bags down from the overhead luggage compartment, yelling, “For f**k’s sake, can you at least hold the baby while I get the the bags down?” The woman was his wife. The baby, his baby.

I find this story illustrative of the issue of people taking umbrage at wee ones on planes because it demonstrates, in short order, that the baby (more often than not) is not the inconsiderate dingbat. The baby is just a baby, and doing as a baby does. The man here is the obvious jerk. And yet the weans are the ones that continue to have the bad rep. People love to complain about babies on planes. Folly, I say.

In the belly of a steel tube, screaming through air

I have flown far more than anymore ought to admit in the era of climate change. I have never encountered a baby as disruptive as a middle aged man or woman in their cups from free trolley booze or - the dreaded worst - a group of twenty something boy-men travelling en masse. Those guys are - and I have interrogated my vocabulary for this description - f**king annoying. They treat a plane cabin like their living room but they should know better.

Babies don't compare. They're butter balls of raw human emotion. Squealing on take off as their ears pop? Craning to see every face surrounding them? Tapping or batting things new and unfamiliar, before slumping, exhausted, into the comforting bosom of their parent, frankly bored of the whole ordeal? Quite sensible behaviour, if you reflect. Because we don't really belong up there, on an airplane, anymore than an eagle belongs behind the wheel of a car. Babies are rational to believe that something has gone awry. In the belly of a steel tube, screaming through air - an element not known for its grippy-ness. Their response is an intelligent one.

Because we don't really belong up there, on an airplane, anymore than an eagle belongs behind the wheel of a car. Babies are rational to believe that something has gone awry

Let us also take a moment to enjoy how fascinated babies are, and fascinating. Instead of sighing, spying one in the cabin, try to enjoy them taking everything in: their sweet faces, which can register as gormless one minute and dignified, inquisitive the next, bobbling atop cherub chubby bodies. Their mad enthusiasms for things we find banal, like tray tables or seatbelts. How contorted their faces get when they're grumpy. Look at it the right way, a baby on a plane is a lovely spark of life on a lengthy, monotonous schlep.

An up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege

I am not, though, a paid up member of the cult of babies. I get it. I get what they're doing wrong. They're rubbish conversationalists. Selfish. They have no practical skill set.

Child-free plane reddit is a hilarious subsection of the internet, where people complain about babies on flights and moot solutions: "soundproof the last few rows, that's the kid section," opines one user, "No need to waste seats, they'd fit perfectly in the overhead bins" comes the response. But when people start griping that flights should be child-free by default and people should pay extra if they want to bring children, the lack of basic empathy exhibited starts to get my dander up. People who have no grasp that they, almost certainly, were once a baby themselves, almost certainly a tiny infant Damien that drove their parents - and many more adults besides - bug-nuts.

I can also understand the argument - I might even agree - that the decision to have a child is a selfish one. But the raising of that child is anything but. It is, to paraphrase Jerry MacGuire, an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that they can never full tell you about. The idea that babies and their parents belong in a sort of squalid plane ghetto for daring to exist or seeking to travel suggests that anything that causes temporary noise, inconvenience, and inefficiency must be outlawed to salve an individual's ego. They, child-free, wise, should always be comfortable, they should have the plane the way they wish, their plane ticket is more valid that the parents with a babe in arms, this collective space is actually their space. If you believe that, how on earth do we ever initiate children into society, arm them with competencies and autonomy to become thoughtful adults?

It is worse for them that it is for you

"Excuse me, I'm so sorry," a polite woman roused my mother, matriarch at the time to five children under the age of ten*, who had just managed to drift off on our flight from London to Tahiti. She was sat next to me and my four brothers, hours into a 32-hour ordeal where she was wrangling us on and off planes. "But your daughter has placed the headphone bag over her head, and I'm just a little concerned that she might - uh - suffocate." I was two at the time. Suffice it to say my poor mother did not manage to get back to sleep that flight. You think having a baby in your cabin is bad? Buddy, you have no idea.

Hear a baby crying, whinging, wriggling? It is worse for the parents of babies than it is for you, I guarantee. You get the odd sociopathic parent who feels no shame for having a malcontent toddler in tow, but most of them are mortified when their child kicks off. Which is why I smile widely at anyone I see with a babe in arms on a flight. It represents a triumph of will over logistics: it is not easy for a bub to be there, and most passengers within the cabin aren't rooting for the baby. But nevertheless, the parents are persisting.

The world is groaning with locales for the baby-free and proud

Of course babies don't belong everywhere. Cinema of Scorsese retrospectives, hipster axe-throwing bars, strip clubs - these locales are right out. And I firmly believe, and understand, that people who have not drunk the kiddie-manufacturing Kool Aid deserve safe spaces, free from incessant drooling, inane parental chatter about feeding schedules, interminable noises and smells, and just a general excess of bodily functions. You don't have to tell me how annoying and boring babies can be. The good news is, the world is groaning with locales for the baby-free and proud.

But babies on a plane (which sounds like the family friendly sequel to Samuel L Jackson's rubbish snakes film) to me is representative of a microcosmic global village. The world is often cruel and unreasonable and indifferent. Please, give me squawling brats when I fly. I embrace it. They deserve to be part of things. It would be sad to contemplate what it signified if they weren't there.

* (if you are wondering, is my Mum a superhero? Yes. Yes she is. In addition to raising five kids, she gained a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She can also knit, sew, paint, makes the world's best lasagne and can design and build a garden retaining wall with aplomb. She is the type of woman Michelle Obama would take tips from on how to be impressive)