Open Letter From a Mom With a Loud Fussy Child to an Annoyed Passenger

Last month I flew British Airways first class with my daughter who was three months old at the time.

We took off just after her bed time. She slept the whole flight except for when the captain turned on the seat belt sign and we had to remove her from the child seat we were given.

On the return she was up much of the flight, napped for part of it, but she did wonderfully. My wife and I took turns looking after her though let’s be honest, it was mostly my wife who is like a ninja with the baby accoutrements packed into a backpack.

When we first boarded our return flight at London Heathrow there was an older man in the cabin giving us glares. He was traveling with a very young girl whom I do not think was his daughter. It turns out he was the second most annoying passenger on the flight — everyone in the cabin wanted to sleep, he kept his window shades open the entire time.

The most annoying passenger? Fortunately it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t my daughter, it was the guy sitting behind the old glaring man in row 3. He changed into his pajamas in the cabin, he didn’t go into the lavatory to do it. He changed back into his street clothes in the cabin, too.

Quite reasonably at the start of the flight people might have guessed that if a passenger was going to cause a problem it would be my daughter. But it wasn’t.

So I read with interest the open letter from a mom blogger to a passenger on her flight that was rolling his eyes and offering “dramatic huffs and puffs” when he saw her board with her little one.

She says “in a momentary lapse of judgement, we sat behind you. It was the nearest set of seats, and I couldn’t wait to put my child and our heavy bags down.” That tells me she was flying Southwest, and she mentions flight 1451. She says it’s a cross country flight so I think we’re talking about Tampa – Las Vegas on Sunday, the only time in the past two weeks that flight 1451 was flew cross country.

She shared what she had done to prepare for her first flight with her child, one segment of which she’d be flying without her husband,

For weeks, I researched tips for flying with kids. I packed toys and games and books and downloaded movies.

I dosed up my child with Benadryl, to make sure any leftover traces of sinus infection didn’t make her ears hurt and to help her rest, but it didn’t work. She only slept 20 minutes on a cross country flight.

I did everything in my power to keep her calm and quiet. I shushed her, and made sure her little feet didn’t kick your seat.

Her child hadn’t eaten much, was over tired, and hadn’t been feeling well. So the “kicking and the screaming tantrums came on fast.”

The passenger was visibly annoyed throughout. The mother apologized to everyone around her. She felt “shame and guilt” until a flight attendant offered help in the form of “a cup and straw to play with.” That pacified her child.

The kind attendant told us, “It’s ok! Flying is tough on everyone, and you are both doing great!”

Somehow, her kindness calmed my baby.

Somehow, her simple words made me feel better.

She was right. We were doing great! We were doing our best, and that’s as great as it gets.

Here’s the thing. It’s tough all around. The mother, knowing her child was tired and unwell, boarding a cross country flight when they hadn’t eaten much. It’s probably the case that mistakes were made.

Still, it was a day time domestic flight, not prime sleeping hours. If only there were things that helped to keep out noise around you.

And yet I think the mother goes off the rails a bit throwing around accusations: “The problem wasn’t with us, it was with you.”

What you need to know, is that while children can be terribly inconvenient now, they will run the world when you are old and grey.

Kids can be annoying and downright obnoxious, but they are also innovative and brilliant.

These kids might one day discover the cure for the type of cancer that runs in your family.

They can be selfish and loud, but they can also be precious and loving.

They might grow up to build systems and make laws that benefit us all.

They may grow up to serve others in a way that makes us wish we could go in time back and do it all over again.

They are the future.

I am quite confident that when her child cures cancer her fellow passengers will be thrilled. They weren’t unhappy with her child’s science, they were unhappy with the screams.

Ironically the mother tells this passenger – who did not speak to her – to shut up: “If you can’t muster up a smile and a hello, then simple silence will do just fine.” He would have felt the same, no doubt!

My point is this, and it’s not just about lap infants or small children: flying is an incredibly small-d democratic endeavor. In the post-deregulation era flying is accessible to people of all backgrounds and a variety of income levels. It’s no longer reserved for business(mostly men) or the wealthy.

And that means we all come together with different experiences. We also have bad days. And we’re packed tightly together in an era where load factors are high. Most of the time there’s no empty seat between us. As a result flying takes patience for other passengers, and it requires that we each do our best to minimize the disturbance we cause.

On a short domestic flight we’ll get through it soon enough. If it were that United flight to nowhere that flew all its passengers back to Newark after a 16 hour diversion and no one to clear them through customs, I perfectly well admit I might become like one of those passengers who cycled through sitting next to Ted Striker in Airplane! as he told his relationship story to one after another.

So which is it? Should passengers shut up and show compassion for a parent traveling with their child, or shouldn’t a child that’s crying be on the plane in the first place? Or should we all just do the best we can to get through it?

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. Passengers should shut up and try to think of how hard it is for the parents!! Of course unless the parents are not trying to control their child(ren) then have some sympathy and think maybe they were up the whole last night, if you still think they deserve some parenting advice write on a note and hand it to em.

    There you go
    A tired parent who often flies with kiddos

  2. If you dont like public transport (its a bus in the sky!), get your own jet. Or at least buy some noise cancelling headphones (regular travellers will have them already) and shut up. Its really that simple IMO.

  3. I was once accosted by a similar victim-complex mother who accused me of giving her a mean face when I saw her board in a row across from my wife and I on a cross-country flight a few years ago.

    I didn’t do it on purpose, but I’m sure she was correct that I had a sad or possibly even a mad look on my face. But not for the reasons she was thinking. The truth of the matter is that my wife and I had been trying to conceive a child for many years. We had previously suffered two miscarriages and just a month before this flight, had suffered another, in the third trimester no less. We were both heartbroken and were both very triggered (emotionally and physically) when seeing newborn babies. We were also flying across the county to visit my dying father, so I was doubly sad. This woman accosted me and told me to grow up, maybe someday I’d have kids of my own to bother everyone with. I did not engage the woman or egg her on, but my wife and I both cried that night, and that moment still haunts us to this day. Many years later, and we still have not had success with bearing children. Every time I am on a plane I remember that moment.

    So although I somewhat sympathize with the woman in this article, she may in fact be overreacting, or not know why the other person was acting the way they were.

  4. Meh…when traveling with our toddler, I don’t really notice my fellow passengers when boarding a plane. Who knows, maybe I’ve been getting glares for the past two years? But, my child travels well, and I’ve got more important things to worry about. Like making sure I have overhead space for a diaper bag above my head. What I’ve found…if you’re a jerk on the ground, you’re probably a jerk on the plane. If your child likes to scream on the ground, they probably scream on the plane. But guess what? Unless you’ve got a private jet, we’re all getting on the same plane.

  5. I’ve been on flights where a kid is kicking the seat in front, and the parents do nothing. And long flights where the parents literally brought nothing to entertain their children, and the children proceeded to misbehave. In both cases, it’s on the parents. But a baby who is crying b/c his ear hurt on takeoff? Or who wakes up grouchy from a nap? Or a kid who talks a bit too loud (plenty of adults do this too!) If this sort of thing really bothers you, 30 cent earplugs from CVS with or without headphones to further block noise will do the trick.

  6. It’s 2019. If you don’t have headphones with you then it’s your own fault you have to hear the noises around you.

  7. I sympathize with parents traveling with their children because it is hard. BUT, parents need to keep an eye on and control their children as well. On a recent flight, the couple behind me had their kid standing on their laps for a good portion of the flight, with the child using the back of my seat to prop itself up. Well, the kid proceeded to pull my hair for the entire time it was standing there and the parents didn’t care. That kind of behavior, I have a problem with.

  8. Both characters in this story need much less of a sense of entitlement. The rude male passenger can’t expect the world never to disturb or distract him and should recognize sometimes there are circumstances where babies need to travel. He was also a baby once, and the passive aggressive repeated huffing and puffing does absolutely nothing. The sanctimonious mother could use a splash of water in her face that just because she has a child doesn’t mean she is somehow better than the rest of humanity or somehow entitled to social grace from everyone in all circumstances, especially when her child is causing unnecessary disruptions in an enclosed environment.

  9. How inconsiderate – the poor fellow sitting behind was having a seizure with the eye rolling and the huffing and puffing – and this woman chose not to engage with him. Obviously j/k.

    But really – if you’re flying a US airline domestically you’ve just caught a Greyhound with wings – adjust your expectations accordingly.

  10. Kudos to the flight attendant for trying to help. We flew on a United flight to LAX over the holidays with our just turned 2 year old toddler. He’s been around the world in F probably a dozen times but this was his first trip needing his own seat.

    We prepared him in the weeks leading up telling him he’s a big boy now and gets his own seat to which he was quite excited. He was fine for takeoff but midflight there was a little turbulence, he got scared and wanted to be held like we used to. Unfortunately the seatbelt sign was still on but my wife thought it would be ok to hold him and buckle in. Out of nowhere, the FA comes charging up the aisle (not that it makes a difference but we were in domestic F) and very firmly said “HE NEEDS TO BE IN HIS SEAT. THIS IS A VIOLATION OF FAA REGULATIONS.” He stood there until my wife and I forcibly buckled him back into his seat, which at this point turned a slightly scared toddler into a full blown meltdown. He would come back every 5 minutes to make sure my son was buckled in to the point my wife made a game with our son about “the scary man is coming, we need to buckle up in our rocket ship to get away”. On the final go, he said very loudly “The nerve of some people, this is why I prefer pets to children”.

    Mountains out of molehills. Instead of trying to remedy the situation, he just made it worse.

  11. +1 to what Jon said.
    I for one really hate crying/screaming babies on airplanes.
    And I get very annoyed when that happens on my flight.
    I don’t say anything nor stare at the parents when it happens though, I just endure it and forget about it when I deplane.

  12. I will admit the line about “needing someone to look mama in the eyes and say it’s going to be ok” made me throw up a little in my mouth.

    Flying with kids is tough sometimes. I have two and have done it dozens of times. So I have a lot of respect for and empathy for this lady.

    But come on, be an adult and get through things without having to be patted on the back all the time or write open letters because people audibly sigh.

  13. This wasn’t a required flight as far as I could tell. I feel sorry for kids who are forced to fly by their parents. The child isn’t going to enjoy the flight and probably not the entire trip. Why put them or fellow passengers through it? Stick to car trips until they are old enough to handle sitting in a seat for the length of the flight and not create a disturbance.

  14. Wow, this is amazing. Someone rolled their eyes at her and she became unglued. That woman sounds like a super awesome treat to be around.

    I don’t care how amazing the wee one is, or will be – find me one person that is excited to sit near a toddler/baby on a flight that has no connection to the child. It’s Southwest, everyone is eyeing up whomever is coming down the aisle to see just how awful their flight will be!

    FWIW – if the adult is genuinely trying to keep things under control I can let all the screaming go. It’s those that think their vacation started as soon as they boarded and stop parenting that need to be educated asap.

  15. I still prefer kids throwing tantrums over fat people on a plane. And don’t get me started on fat kids having a tantrum.

  16. I feel for both – not easy to travel with an ill infant, but she was”assuming” a lot with the gentleman behind her. I would never recommend Benadryl to a toddler either as >50% of kids have the opposite reaction and get very surly/crabby and hyper. Not to say that was the cause, but may contribute. Do not try to medicate children for a flight if able!

  17. I don’t have kids and fly weekly for work. Do I enjoy screaming/crying kids on planes? Of course not, but you can’t fault a kid for being a kid. Get over it. Don’t glare and don’t sigh…get over it. And yes, I have a set of noise cancelling headphones.

  18. Oh Gary…’re going to find out soon
    “The mother, knowing her child was tired and unwell, boarding a cross country flight when they hadn’t eaten much. It’s probably the case that mistakes were made.” You’ll quickly find out that trying to get a toddler to eat when they don’t want to is an exercise in frustration…..
    however, children cry –
    the mom was expressing her frustration online – she didn’t confront the man or cause a scene on the plane. Seems to me this is an ENTIRELY appropriate way to express her feelings – nobody is making you read her complaint if you don’t want to.
    As for me – while I’d rather not deal with a screaming toddler I do understand when a parent is doing the best they can! I’d prefer that to a slobbering, loud drunk (who does (or should have)control over themselves or a large seatmate that encroaches on my seat space and causes me physical pain/discomfort.

  19. Lol, a ‘smirk’ or something like it and the guy is instantly an asshole.

    Get over yourself lady, and next time try some vodka and cherry coke with thiat Benadryl

  20. gleff,

    What are going to do if/when some passenger on your child’s flight is moaning about you and/or your wife having a whiny baby in in a premium-cabin seat on a long-haul flights? The whining about your child may or may not happen, but at some point I’m sure your daughter will be making a fuss or a stink on a flight that sort of disturbs the peace at some level — probably your peace more than anyone else’s. 😀

    I’ve seen some rather unfriendly behavior directed toward parents with crying/screaming kids on planes, and in some cases it even involved words inching toward fighting words or an invitation to back down or prepare for “bigger problems”.

  21. david,

    I’ve also seen passengers assume a child seated behind is the one kicking or otherwise bumping/pulling the seat even when the child may have done no such thing.

    Unfortunately, as the greedy airlines push to get seats more crammed together and often narrowing the aisle space too, it becomes increasingly likely that the passenger experience gets messed up by fellow passengers in way that wasn’t so bad decades ago.

  22. Good morning and happy Wednesday,

    It’s always an uphill battle to deal with a fussy child or our children in general whether it’s in a public place, or on an airplane. One thing about loud children is that it teaches the person patience. And that patients can be applied to making more money in entrepreneurship and adjusting to leadership roles in corporate business. So what’s seen at first as something bad is actually something that’s possibly good in disguise. Agree? 🙂

  23. Gary – I really enjoy your blog. And I’ve never left a comment on this (or any other) blog. But I’m leaving one here, as a father of two daughters aged 7 and 4 (and fellow Austinite, BTW), to say this:

    If you’ve only just taken your first flight with a child (or children), you do not know from what you speak. Give it a few years (and maybe another kiddo or two); I have a hunch your perspective will change.

  24. I’ve been disturbed way more often in J / F / Y by loud / drunk / obnoxious adults than crying babies. Just sayin’…..

  25. @Josh Bernstein – thanks, fair, though to be clear this wasn’t a first flight. and i know it will get tougher once she’s over about 9 months old!

  26. So he didn’t say anything to her and she had a fit? She sounds mentally unstable and maybe she is the one who needs to be quiet.

  27. Having had kids myself, I’ve never had a problem with screaming kids. It’s not their fault. They’re just babies. I put on my noise cancelling headphones and all is good. The people I have an issue with are uncivilized adults. They should know better. You know, the ones who violate your personal space etc. Oh, I did once have a big issue with a mom and her son. Again, it is the rude adult who was the issue. This was a long international flight on Singapore Airlines with four seats across. The seat next to me was empty but she put her 4 year old in that seat leaving an empty seat between her and her son! So throughout the flight, this kid was ignored by the mom and looked to me for attention. I felt sorry for him but my job is not to babysit someone else’s child. Talk about a rude and neglectful parent.

  28. When are we going to get adults only flights?
    I would certainly pay a premium, particularly after just enduring a 9 1/2 hour trans atlantic flight with a 4 year old behind me yelling the whole time and then running up and down the aisle.
    I don’t blame the child, I’ve raised 3 and all flew with me many times and behaved. it’s the parents fault. take some responsibility.

  29. OMG get over yourselves! You don’t know my life and I don’t know yours. If we all treated each other the way we would like to be treated then our conscience is clear. Don’t make excuses, apologize if you accidentally bump them or your kid does, and don’t start crap. Or expect special treatment. Everyone has bad days. Don’t make them worse.

  30. @Tom, your story makes me hurt. I am so sorry for what happened to you.
    It reminds me of a time when I stopped at a local fast food place to get something to eat. I hadn’t eaten in quite a while because my father had passed away the day before extremely unexpectedly and I was trying to deal with everything.
    I was waiting for my food to go and a woman came up to be and said, “smile.” I just looked at her and she said, “you should smile. It doesn’t cost anything.” I kept staring and she seemed to get annoyed and started saying to anyone in the area, “why can’t people just smile and make the world better?!” I started crying right there. She looked horrified and I said, “my father just died.” She just started backing away and babbling, “I didn’t know, I just thought-” I repeated, “my father just died,” and tried to stop crying and she kept babbling.

    That was a long story, but, the point is, no one has any idea what is going on in someone’s life. This man made little huffing noises and eye rolls and he’s the problem? He didn’t say anything and maybe it was unfair to be annoyed, but this woman needs to stop for a moment and realize that traveling by a child on a plane can be a terrible experience. I understand that they don’t have full control over their actions, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it can really suck to be by one on a plane.
    He didn’t engage with you and I will bet that a large portion of the people around you were also annoyed. Is it fair? Maybe not, but understand that while we may like children, if one gets crying in that small space, we don’t have like it right then.

  31. 1) Buying a ticket on Southwest Airlines and then huffing and puffing over a small child being on-board is mistake numero uno. Southwest Flights are glorified daycares…this man should be made aware for the future.

    2) I was that young man before having children. I would get super upset and stew to myself over misbehaving/loud/screaming children. Now that I have two of them, I understand the struggle and realize the parents are having a worse time than me and I just sit back and relax about it.

    3) This woman should have just realized that this man was probably childless and had a different perspective on life, and ignored it. Instead she chose to wax poetic about her child’s ability to cure cancer and came off looking like the crazy one. She forgot Parenting Rule #23: Nobody thinks your kids are as cute as you do, AND THAT’S OK.

    4) I wouldn’t have judged her as much if she didn’t trot out the line “she was hungry because she didn’t want to eat any airport food”. Yes, you are doing something wrong if your kid only eats hot dogs cut into octagons and mac and cheese from the RED BOX, NOT THE BLUE BOX MOM! This girl was what, 18 months? I have a 20 month old who eats the same dinner we do. Grow up lady. [/takes off parental judgement hat]

  32. @Tom I’m so sorry for all of your losses. It’s a paradigm shift. Reminds me of a similar story that defines the shift: a man was on a subway with three kids. He wasn’t paying attention to them and they were bothering people and causing a ruckus. Someone told him that his kids were disturbing the passengers and maybe he could control them. And he apologized and said that they just left the hospital where their mother passed away and he didn’t know what to do.

    In a second, the situation is different. I agree she handled it like a victim in writing, but we never know the stress people are under. Empathy can be a beautiful thing.

  33. Well said Nina.
    Let’s all face facts. Most likely every one of us has or will have to deal with a cranky, noisy child on a plane. Or, we have been that cranky, noisy child on the plane.
    Have a little heart folks.
    It’s just a few hours on a plane, and there are earphones.

  34. Concur with Gary. I’m usually with the parents but this one sounds like an oversensitive snowflake attention seeker with a chip on her shoulder. I guarantee you that child will not sure cancer because the mommy is not smart enough to pack food, milk, toys, ipad etc before boarding a southwest transcon. So what if some dolt rolled his eyes and sighed? If that’s a huge problem for you maybe you should travel by car.

    My kids have probably flown 250+ segments without issues because we prepare and leave plenty of time to buy food and bev at the airport. The only times this strategy fails is when flights are delayed and we don’t have time to stock up when literally running between connections. So we pay extra for nonstops on airlines with BOB

  35. Why can’t the airlines have ‘screaming kid’ sections of the plane, like there used to be smoking sections? That way at least they’d all be together and the rest of us could find safe seats. I always take noise cancelling ear buds but they can only do so much.
    The parents’ sense of entitlement is often equally frustrating.

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