Sunday, August 1, 2010

Meltdown at 30 Thousand Feet: A Flying With Children Fiasco

As first published by

If you’ve ever seen a pair of scampering squirrels chasing each other up and down a tree at dizzying speeds, you may understand what flying with young children is like. Now take those two squirrels, stuff them in a paper sack, give it a shake until their good and mad, and then ask them to sit quietly on an airplane. Now you know what flying with my two sons is like. On a recent flight home from Colorado to D.C., they had a very public meltdown, and my response was about as effective as using gasoline to extinguish a fire.

When it comes to flying, I’ve become THAT guy at the airport, the guy with the rental cart piled high with a massive, over-stuffed, family-size suitcase, two backpacks bursting with toys, books, blankets and diapers, a cooler full of sippycups, and two car seats stacked precariously on top of it all. The carefree, pre-children days of traveling with a single backpack, a book and a buzz are a distant memory. So by boarding time, after loading and unloading the taxi, checking in to the whining demands for more juice, the usual headache of being processed by security, multiple bathroom breaks and an excessively long line to buy bagels; I was already worn out and ready to relax. I just wanted to find our seats, point the little jet of cold air on my face, and close my eyes. Of course, that turned out to be a ridiculously naive fantasy.

After gate-checking the jogging stroller, we were welcomed aboard by grinning flight attendants. Their insincere Barbie smirks couldn’t mask their true thoughts as they sized us up. They knew with one look - This family is going to be a problem. My wife carried our 16-month-old and a backpack, and I had a bag and my three-year-old’s hand. The apprehensive looks on the faces of the other passengers as we ambled past them down the aisle bordered on dread. I could almost read their minds as their fearful eyes moved from our procession to the empty seats around them: Please don’t sit next to me.Please...

With one bag stowed above and the other stuffed under the seat, it wasn’t long before my sons’ cheerful disposition dissipated and their behavior became unruly. Poor ‘Lil C was too young for a seat of his own and just wanted to lie down in his crib. He writhed and screamed and threw his Nuk and sippycup on the floor over and over. Then like the flip of a bi-polar switch, his wailing briefly turned to laughter and he sat still for a page or two of a story before returning to his sonorous assault on my ears.

Big C continuously pulled the window shade down. He unfastened his seatbelt during takeoff and banged his tray down repeatedly. The woman in front of us had her seat kicked multiple times as he whined, cried and threw tantrums over the most infinitesimal things. I tried to point things out the window like rivers, fields and clouds, but he wasn’t interested. My patience was gone and the end of my rope was tattered and frayed. I was screaming at my son through clenched teeth, yelling and gesturing at my wife in frustration, and generally making everything worse. The unfolding scene drew sympathetic looks from parents and irritated glances from others. The cacophony was so invasive, so crushing that I’m sure everyone was secretly praying that the mild turbulence we were experiencing would increase, tear the roof off, and suck them out into a blissful freefall.

There’s nothing worse than sitting near an irate parent. The offending parent’s hostility is contagious. A dark cloud of revulsion and hate spreads from them throughout the cabin and taints everyone’s mood. The recycled air tastes more stale than normal. People take long, hopeful looks at their watches. The merchandise in the Sky Mall catalog seems junkier than ever, and the already completed crossword puzzle feels like a personal insult. Passengers normally tolerate misbehaving children, but they loathe the hotheaded parent that loses their cool and makes things worse. I had become the irate parent.

I was nearly institutional. After being scolded by my wife for losing my temper, I was in a near catatonic state, staring blankly at the graphic of the airplane traveling across the screen mounted on the seat in front of me. The plane was moving slower than eastbound traffic on Hwy 66 on a Monday morning. Slugs inch across the sidewalk faster than the animated plane moved. As we hovered over the Midwest, Washington might as well have been in Europe. My mind filled with fantastic visions of escape. Maybe if I kicked over the beverage cart, the anonymous Air Marshall would choke me out of my misery with a headlock. I wanted off the plane one way or another.

And just as I was about to commit a felony at 30 thousand feet, my baby boy fell asleep and his older brother’s attention was captured by a surprise gift. The remainder of the flight had its challenges, but the worst was over. When it comes to flying, I learned not to expect too much from the kids. After all, they were out of their element and out of their routine. Their sleep schedules had been obliterated by the switch in time zones, and ‘Lil C was forced to sleep in a Pack n’ Play all week. Like their father, I’m sure they just wanted off that plane, too.

1 comment: