Crying Babies on Planes and the Social Sciences: Economics Tells You to Just Deal

Art Carden takes a Coasian law and economics approach and tells people who complain about crying babies on a plane to just deal.

Of course, he’s more subtle than that, couching it in all social sciency language,

[T]he bundle of rights you purchase with a plane ticket includes the reasonable expectation that there will be a crying baby or two on the plane.

As one of his readers explains, “Your tickets are cheap because crying babies fly too.”

Which isn’t quite true, in that your tickets might not be cheap especially coast-to-coast or internationally at the last minute. But in the limit this seems more right than it does wrong.

Carden reframes the question not as ‘babies are a disturbance’ but as each side staking out a possibly valid position.

There wouldn’t be a conflict about rights were it not for the non-baby passengers who are there to hear the noise. That the baby is the source of the problem isn’t obvious.

Pet Airways was a concept that never really got off the ground, so the market didn’t offer an all pet solution. And while there are unaccompanies minors on planes, there are no “unaccompanied minor-only” planes. The two sets mutually co-exist on most airlines.

The airline internalizes the externalities through the price of the ticket, coming to an optimal solution which apparently means most of the time allowing screaming babies if the babies are wont to scream during the flight.

The airline–the owner of the space temporarily inhabited by the passengers–presumably capitalizes the likelihood of amenities and disamenities into the price of the ticket.

Malaysia Airlines has banned babies from first class. There may be a market for offering baby free zones, the way that Amtrak has a quiet car. But it’s not obvious that there’s money to be made there. Airlines have gotten pretty good about monetizing extra legroom, checked bags, and other optional services. Yet most aren’t charging a premium for no crying babies. Some people might pay such a premium, but most likely it seems there aren’t enough.

He notes the solutions that passengers annoyed by screaming kids can employ — headphones, ear plugs, paying attention to inflight entertainment (once it exists on the plane, I suspect that having to install inflight entertainment as an anti-crying measure might flip the analysis somewhat and an airline might choose to just ban babies if not for the negative PR they’d suffer as a result).

I don’t buy his offsetting positives, though, that kids are cute too. Crying babies are tough — for the parents with those children trying to quiet them down and for passengers trying to sleep on long haul overnight flights especially.

Interestingly, while Malaysia has offered baby-free first class cabins, and while it’s true that babies are less likely to be in first class (it’s costlier, so larger families mean greater costs to get there, plus first class is populated largely by business traveler upgrades), there’s hardly a guarantee of such.

So while you can reduce the likelihood of sitting near crying babies by getting into the first class cabin, if you’ve paid the fare for such a ticket you’re likely to be even angrier than I was when I flew Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Chicago and two parents sent their two year old screaming through the aisles back and forth between seats 1A and 2A while I was trying to sleep.

Finally, while Carden ends on a note I agree with — that parents have an obligation to come prepared, to do their best to occupy their children and keep them calm (children may scream anyway, but it’s often parents checking out that’s the problem not the kids) — I’m not sure how well that fits into the analysis because this obligation is hardly enforceable, and there’s no compensation available to passengers when a parent fails to exercise that responsibility. Doesn’t that, in effect, mean it isn’t a real responsibility at all?

Do you agree that economics tells us that babies crying on planes is an efficient outcome?

(HT: Jeanne)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. There are lots of things that are “efficient” by economic standards that are nonetheless appallingly annoying; I’m not clear why an economic argument should trump all others.

  2. “Welcome to living in an actual society, where not everything is pleasant”

    I’m quite aware that not everything is pleasant. What I don’t need is economics fetishists explaining to me that it’s “efficient” and I should just deal with it.

  3. There is a difference between a crying baby and one that is wailing at the top if its lungs screaming through much of the flight
    A little crying is normal but I’ve had the unfortunate experience of the rare very loud psycho baby 🙂
    Economics aren’t a factor any more than any passenger who intrudes on your personal sanity or space from yelling into their cell phone or spilling into your seat due to being oversized
    Airlines have to find a way to manage passenger comfort and experience within reason

  4. If the airline market were perfectly competitive, Carden’s argument would be correct. In the real world, the airline market isn’t close to perfectly competitive, and his argument likely isn’t correct.

  5. I can tolerate crying babies themselves but have strong feelings toward the parents.

    I always have great sympathy for the mentioned ” parents with those children trying to quiet them down ” but considerable anger for the parents who show no attempt at being considerate of others.

    Now that I think of it my criteria for all passengers, parents or not, comes down to whether they show no attempt at being considerate of others.

  6. Crying babies don’t really bother me (well, okay they do but I can bear it) especially upon take-off or landing with popped ear drums, but it’s the PITA parents when they stop giving a darn, thinking that they deserve a break too. Sorry but as a parent of a toddler myself, we get no breaks till the bugger, I mean sweetie, falls asleep.

    So it’s our job to try everything to keep the little one distracted, books, cars, dressing them up cute so strangers can hold them for a while (it does work you know 🙂 )

  7. I agree with the math. Same risks with noise adults, or people with strong perfume. If you want guaranteed quiet, may I suggest… NetJets.

    To the point about first class being “largely” populated with business traveler “upgrades,” what’s your basis for that assertion? Perhaps that’s the case on on UA/AA, but you should know…the upgrade orgy is far less prevelant abroad.

  8. OK Gary, was it just too quiet a sunday for you? Had to stir the pot?! 😉

  9. OK one more posting, just catching up on the weekend’s news and read about a survey through Harris carried by the Nashville Business Journal,, that notes that “Air travelers prefer crying babies over smelly seatmates” !!!

  10. “Your tickets are cheap because crying babies fly too.”

    Makes no sense to me, unless those babies are actually paying for their tickets. Which they are not, nor are the parents, since I’m pretty sure infants fly without charge. At least on AA they do, up to age 2, even in FC. So no, the crying baby is not subsidizing my ticket. In fact, I’m probably paying more to make up for the free seat occupied by the infant.

    As for children who are allowed to run unchecked around the plane, I see no reason for this to be allowed. A few days ago a plane landed mid-route to dump off a woman who wouldn’t stop singing Whitney Houston songs. If the FAs wouldn’t allow adults to run around the plane screaming, and they would not, then the parents should be told that failure to control their child will result in a visit to Security upon landing. With possible fines being levied. Or a least a court ordered 2 hours a day reading and re-reading MommyPoints blog every day for a month. 😀

    But in cases where parents do their best to comfort a crying child due to ear pressure problems on landing, the parents deserve sympathy, not ire.

  11. @NY Banker said it well. Easy upgrades to first class are a US airline phenomenon.

    Babies will cry since their ears are still developing and it must hurt as hell when the cabin is pressurized or depressurized. Add teeth development, discomfort and you will have a bad situation.

    I have flown with passengers who burped ( putrid ), snored, farted, talked loudly, in all classes. It is all a confined space issue and the only thing one can do is pray for a safe and quiet flight. Or get your own Gulfstream!

  12. For crying babies, I put on noise canceling headsets, and at <10K feet have them on with the power off. Airplanes are one of the rare times where people are exposed to others in close quarters. Hence the FF'ers obsession with first class, where the likelihood of sharing elbow and leg space with others is minimized. Headphones can cancel out the noise pollution (pun intended). The last frontier is smell, which the aircraft air circulation system perfumes out to some extent.

  13. My first experience with business class was when I was 25 years old and traveling alone with my 6 month old son from Paris to NY. It was 1984. For some reason which I no longer remember, I was upgraded and walked in with my baby and sat next to a 30-something guy in a suit who immediately snarled at me, “Did you just get upgraded or something?”
    I felt unworthy, smiled sheepishly and said, “yes, I did, but I think the baby will sleep.” He immediately pushed the call button and asked the flight attendant to move his seat, scowling all the while.
    It was so long ago, but I have a full memory of the feeling that I was placed somewhere where I did not belong.
    I put the baby in a bassinet on the floor by my feet and he slept the entire flight. Pure luck.

  14. Gary-

    A lot of thoughts came to mind when reading this post…

    “Your tickets are cheap because crying babies fly too.”

    Not sure this makes sense. Also- babies (under 2) don’t have a “seat”. They sit on a lap. At 2, they pay for a seat.

    I’ve flown around 750K BIS miles over 20 years… no one “likes” hearing a baby or kid screaming on a plane.

    But there is a huge difference between a 10 month old baby crying, and the aforementioned kid running up and down the aisle screaming.

    My wife and I had a baby girl last July. A month ago we flew IAD-CPH in C, and VIE-IAD in C as well (SAS and Austrian).

    We came prepared with toys, snacks, food, bottles, etc to keep her entertained, (hopefully) quiet, and content. It actually worked really well.

    We just flew home today (DEN-IAD) on UA in E+. Same preparation.

    Thing is- sometimes babys cry. They just do. And even if I have snacks, toys, etc, they are still going to cry some. Its what they do.

    Would I rather NOT be confined to a metal tube for 3.5 hours to go to DEN? Of course! But I can’t spend 3 DAYS driving EACH WAY to get there and back.

    In summary- I think everyone needs to realize that a BABY is going to cry some. Especially being cooped up on a plane for X number of hours, not able to play on the floor, etc. But parents should not let their OLDER children run screaming thru the aisles either.

    Just my 2 cents after flying for 20 years without kids, and now with.

  15. Yes, screaming babies are frustrating (for everyone!), but I think the larger issue is that there should be QUIET CABINS, without discriminating as to the age (or, frankly, maturity) of the occupants.

    The Party, er, “Active Cabin” should house screaming babies, adults acting like babies, loud drunks, etc. The “Quiet Cabin” should have those folks who want to sleep, read a book, or have very quiet, occasional conversations with the person next to them.

    I have no brilliant ideas as to how this’d work with load capacity, or with people that violate the rules/spirit of the cabin they’ve chosen. For the latter, I’d be happy with them being charged a violation fee of 50% the cost of their ticket (with such terms being clearly spelled out when purchasing the ticket) and/or being banned from reserving a spot in the airline’s Quiet Cabins from then on.

  16. To those pointing out that lap infants do not purchase their seat, you’re missing the point. Lap infants fly with parents that purchase a seat. Those parents often fly with a second parent as well as other children. An airline that says no to that infant loses that whole family, and there are a lot of families. The economics/realities are that families will book away from an airline that forbids their infant (they’re not going to leave the infant at home), but for all the complaining about crying babies, the complainers are not willing to pay what it would cost to lose those families or alternatively, what it would cost for a quiet cabin.

  17. > the complainers are not willing to pay what it would cost

    False. I’d gladly pay more to have a quieter flight. And no, I shouldn’t have to pay 5-10x more to sit in Business.

    You have a few other false assumptions:
    – You assume that any business lost to families traveling would NOT be made up by non-baby’d folks (business people who can’t afford Business class seats, for instance).
    – You assume that it’s an all-or-nothing option per airline. Couldn’t airlines have Quiet Cabins on certain (but not all) flights?

  18. I agree with the earlier comment that an economic argument does not trumps all other arguments. How about we hold a psychological stress test where we strap a few economists into a coach seat, and set up crying babies and ambivalent parents at varying distances to them, and lets measure economic efficiency vs. heart rate?

  19. @Adam, no one is asserting that there are not individuals who would pay more to fly baby free. Even individuals that would pay substantially more. The argument is that on the whole, those individuals are not numerous enough and aren’t willing to pay enough to make up for the expected lost revenue from having a baby free plane. Or, in the case of quiet cabins, that the cost of implementing such a program isn’t worth it bc despite what people say, they won’t pay enough to make it worthwhile.

    Lots of people say they will pay for extra features, but the airlines have seen over and over that despite what they say, the overwhelming majority of people will buy the cheapest fare. In any event, I haven’t crunched the numbers myself. I was mainly just trying to point out the flaw in the critique that lap infants fly for free. It’s irrelevant whether the lap infant has a “free” seat. You’re looking at the cost of a ticket compared to what it would be if babies couldn’t fly. It would be more expensive bc families wouldn’t fly (or they would book away to a competitor). How much more is up for debate, but the industry has nearly universally rejected the argument that they will make up for it in business gained by those preferring a quiet cabin.

  20. Robert Hanson a couple of points to think about:
    1. Many parents choose to buy their under 2 y/o a seat anyway for a variety of reasons.
    2. Babies don’t stop magically crying when they reach age 2, so at some point you end up with a traveler who takes up less space and typically brings along several other paying travelers at the same time.

  21. Adam, a “quiet cabin” won’t work because it’s dependent on passengers self-classifying themselves as “quiet”, unfortunately more people will think themselves quiet than actually are.
    So the only way to guarantee quietness would be to reserve several seats in the “noisy cabin” for those who have to be removed, so you’d have to spread that cost plus the cost of policing the “quiet cabin” over those seats. So the question comes as to whether or not the added costs are at or above what folks like yourself are willing to pay.

    To further point out flaws in reasoning, the typical toddler brings along 3 family members, so you’d need 3-4 additional passengers per toddler to make up for the lost revenue per flight. Depending on the route that could be 25% or more, plus the feeder traffic. The reality is those tickets are going to cost more, making it harder for the business folks who have to buy the lowest cost ticket within reason to fly that airline, resulting in less traffic and even higher costs. However that airline still doesn’t rid itself of the seat smackers, people playing games on their tablet/cell phone with no head phones, smell really bad etc.

  22. I found this site after spending a couple of hours on a flight with a screaming baby whose screaming pitch was such that I thought the windows would shatter and we would all die and I was reminded of the time when out child flew and we took items to pacify her especially.
    if you can’t control your kid don’t fly.
    I was sure that the noise level was above the 87 decibels stipulated by law and the next time it happens I will record it on my app and ask,the CSD what they are going to do to safeguard my ear health and that I hold them liable for my health and safety whilst in their care.
    Clarkson actually had a valid point…

  23. Would have loved to been flying with most of the group commenting here over the last two weeks. Our family of 4 just returned from Hawaii–lots of air time for a one year old and 3.5 year old.

    And my thoughts are this…

    People should be considerate and respectful of others they come into contact with. Period. We had planned, prepared, and had plans a, b, c, d, and e as backup plans. We worked to ensure that our two little ones behaved in the absolute best manner possible. Of course keeping in mind that they are children, and unpredictable, but we were going to work to make it as comfortable a flight for all as possible.

    Now, that didn’t stop the woman who sat herself behind us to become absolutely loud and obnoxious upon realizing she had chosen a seat behind two children (we were on Southwest this leg). She likely didn’t realize because my children were occupied and behaved. Didn’t stop her from actually making two phone calls to complain to her friends about how she was behind not one, but two kids and they were going to be miserable and make the flight horrible. She was loud, obnoxious, and simply rude. She selected the seat and rather than complain before there was reason to complain, she should have moved her seat. I’ll tell you, I’m glad hubby was the first one on the plane with our eldest to get everything set up. He heard the bulk of it. Had I been on, I may have moved her to the back of the plane.

    Lucky for us, we had great flights. Our kids had snacks and drinks for takeoff and landing leaving no tears for ear pressure. My eldest behaved better during our entire trip than this woman behaved during takeoff. Our littlest was not a perfect angel, but in nearly 24 hours of flying roundtrip, I’d estimate she had a few screams for less than 20 minutes total. We got lucky, we were proactive, and we were prepared. We could have been all those things, and still ended up with a fussy child–still having more tricks in the bag to entertain.

    During our last leg there was a poor little guy in the back of the plane screaming the entire 4 hours of the flight. I really did feel terrible for the little man, his parents, and the passengers around him. Of course I wasn’t back there to see how the parents reacted or how proactive they were in calming him. But I assumed they were doing the best that they could given the situation. I felt horrible for them. But I sure was glad it wasn’t me. At least not this time!

  24. I feel so bad for you that, 18 months later, you haven’t yet recovered from sharing CX’s first class cabin with my family for 15 hours. Since we live just a few miles from you, I’m sure you’re glad that we weren’t on the same flight back to DC!

    To be clear, we did not send our son running or screaming anywhere. I realize you are not a parent, but it can be tricky sometimes to *force* a 23-month-old to sit quietly for hours on end, especially a kid with as much energy as mine has. My wife knows a little bit about this; she has a degree in human development from Harvard and has spent her entire adult life working with young children.

    My wife and I spend basically every moment of every flight we take trying to minimize our impact on our fellow passengers. You have every right to believe that we abdicated our responsibility, but I ensure you that this was not the case.

    While I may be a bit snarky in this post, I am really sorry that your flight was disturbed. Luckily for you, in case our families again redeem awards for the same flights to/from beaches in Southeast Asia, my son has now matured enough to play (quietly) with an iPad for hours and hours. That should give me enough time to read your blog and see how many more posts you can make that reference my family!

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