Airline Passengers: Sadly Insensitive

   By drodriguez  Aug 08, 2011

A story of travel and parenting, and the etiquette of fellow passengers. This post originally appeared on the life + work blog, by Lisa Cape Lilienthal, with the title "About that Village."

My children and I are flying today on an early flight out of LAX bound for Atlanta, an unplanned trip that I had to book with less than 48 hours’ notice.  I called the airline and ponied up the extra $25 to book the tickets with an agent’s help precisely so I could get our seats as close together as possible.  We ended up with me in 16F (on the aisle) and the kids in 17D and E, across the aisle from me and one row back.  In other words, in swatting distance should the need arise.

As is customary for us, when it came time to board the plane, the kids and I walked to the door of the plane together, and then I handed Annabelle the boarding passes and sent them ahead to our seats while I transferred to an aisle chair (a narrow chair that just – and I mean just barely – fits down the aisle of the plane.  It’s how I get to my seat.).  Of course it’s a packed flight and we chose to board last, so the plane was pretty much full by this time.  As the airport team rolled me closer to my seat, I looked over my shoulder to where my kids should be, and saw a family of three.  I said, “Annabelle, Cooper, where are you?”  I was looking where they should be sitting and past those seats, getting a little agitated, repeating myself in a little bit louder voice until I heard Annabelle say, “We’re back here,” from several rows away.

I’m confused, so I look at the people sitting in my kids’ seats (a youngish, maybe late 20s/early 30s couple and a little girl who is about 4) and say, “I think you are in my childrens’ seats.”  “Oh,” the mom says.  “They told us it was OK to swap seats with them.”  Not moving.

Seriously?  You seriously asked two children, whose parent was not present, to change seats?  Without checking with a flight attendant?  I absolutely could not believe it.

“Well, here’s the deal,” I said.  “Those are their seats, and I can’t walk, so I’m not interested in having my kids several rows back.  You’ll need to move.  Now.”

“Well, they said it was OK,” the woman repeated.  “We didn’t know they were with you.”  Still not yet moving.

“They may have said it was OK, I’m sure they were trying to be nice, but they’re kids,” I said. “You’re the grown up, and you shouldn’t have asked them to move without consulting a parent or a flight attendant.  Not cool.” She stands up, the dad stays mute, the little girl looks at me like I’m crazy, and my kids come back down the aisle.  The look on Annabelle’s face is somewhere between embarrassed and chagrined.  Embarrassed, because I had hollered for her, and chagrined, because she thought she’d done something wrong.  

As for the family of three?  No apology.  No acknowledgement that, gee, maybe their focus on their own family and their own family alone may have violated the social covenant of the village, which to me says that we look out for one another, and especially for one another’s children. 

Because that’s what really bothers me the most about this whole situation – the idea that people who are parents themselves would think it was OK to displace two relatively young children (one of whom has Down syndrome, of course) without thinking that maybe they should check with someone first.  Even if – and especially if – they assumed the kids were flying unaccompanied, they should have realized that the kids needed to be in their assigned seats for safekeeping.

During this exchange, which took less than three minutes, the guys who were helping me board stood stock still, watching it play out but silently supporting me by nodding their heads when I spoke.  One of them must have shared the incident with the gate agent, because she boarded the plane and came to see me, asking what happened and making sure the kids and I were OK. Brownie points for Delta today!

As I took a deep breath and began to stow my carry-ons, the couple across the aisle (and in front of the kids) said, “Why don’t we just swap seats with your kids so they’ll be right here?” 

“That’s so nice,” I said, “but you don’t have to do that – and I’m sorry you had to see me pitch a fit like that.”

“Nonsense,” the gentleman said,  “We have three kids, we completely understand.”  Ah, fellow villagers.

Read the full post here.

How do you handle frustrating situations when you travel?  Tell us your stories!

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jemappel by jemappel | Rye Brook, NY
Aug 10, 2011

Yes, let's focus on the nice people who offered to swap at the end! Forget the other people, they're not worth it. Good for you for standing up to them.

centrej by centrej | WALLA WALLA, WA
Aug 09, 2011

I laughed that the woman thought that kids can dictate it's ok to sit in their seats w/o arguing. Most kids that age will listen to adults, and if it's strangers, why would they say "no"? I was on a plane to Boston from Portland, OR and this guy had to be asked by 3 flight attendants to get off his phone so we could take off. He kept pulling out his phone, even people next to him started to tell him to put it away. The male flight attendant had to threaten to take the phone from him before the guy actually put it away.

msfriendly by msfriendly | MONROE, WI
Aug 09, 2011

Wow. Aren't people something? I think this all opens our eyes up to be more kind to each other.

buttercup3 by buttercup3 | Portage, IN
Aug 09, 2011

Some people have no common sense! At least you had the airline backing you up. Last summer my family and I flew home to Chicago from Orlando on Airtran. We had book all 5 seats 6 months ahead of time and at the same time. When we got there they had my husband and 4yr together in the back, me and my 2yr old together in the middle, and my 6yr old daughter by herself in the front. They didn't see the problem with placing a 6yr old by herself! It took a lot of arguing to get her moved by me. THey kept saying the flight was booked and it wasn't possible. So I asked them which one planned on helping her when she needed it...they didn't understand why I couldn't leave the 2yr old in her seat and walk up to help her!

pinkpoodle by pinkpoodle | MARIETTA, GA
Aug 09, 2011

I don't think I would have been nearly as articulate as you! Thanks for sharing this story, perhaps it will remind some of us to show more compassion -- or at least to step in if our fellow passengers aren't.

AnnSheSpeaks by AnnSheSpeaks | Maplewood, NJ
Aug 09, 2011

I think its so sad that courtesy has become so much less common, and more a foreign concept. Sometimes I wish I lived 50 years ago, when it seems to me people were much more considerate and less out for themselves and their own wants.

didama by didama | MAPLEWOOD, NJ
Aug 09, 2011

Heartbreaking story. Commuters & airline passengers lose all sense of decency while traveling. Once while 8 months pregnant on train, I stood the entire ride as no one offered me their seat.

girl17 by girl17 | EAGAN, MN
Aug 08, 2011

I know the feeling!! My 18 month daughter and I were on a flight back from visiting Grandma and a business traveler (60ish) told me to move her because she was crying for Grandma and he couldn't continue his phone conversation! I was in shock and just said no.