Observations by Claire Irving

The show biz saying goes never work with animals or kids. A similar adage could be applied to flying and kids. As part of our relocation package we’re fortunate to get annual business class flights back to the UK for all the family. This has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. During every one of the flights we’ve taken so far our fellow passengers have made negative comments about our travelling in business with our three young boys. They range from the passive, said by a fellow passenger to their travelling companion in a slightly too loud whisper - “if they’re near me I’m asking to be moved” through to the personal and aggressive. One female passenger accused us of being inept parents when our then three year old laughed loudly at a film. Perhaps muzzling or sedating him would have been preferable for her?

These experiences made us feel like social pariahs just because we’re travelling with kids. The knock on effect is the memory of them has transformed flying from a pleasurable experience into an anxious one.  We plan meticulously, booking flights that fit with the boys sleeping schedules, preferably at night, deciding who sits next to whom, the order we go and off in, and our hand luggage has swelled threefold as we pack every trick in the book designed to distract or occupy the kids  – iPods, ipads, pretzels, colouring books and Ring Pops spill out of our bags at security. For our annual transatlantic flight we’ve always plumped for Virgin’s Upper Class specifically because of its reputation for being family friendly. Whether flying from JFK or Newark or Heathrow Virgin’s ground and in-flight staff - stand out as being exceptionally helpful, attentive and proactive. Friends with kids who’ve also flown with them in various classes also echo these sentiments. Their teams of young flight attendants seem to feel our parental pain as they watch us trail helplessly behind our prodigy as they circle the cabin, try to climb onto unsuspecting passenger’s flatbeds, pull toes ensconced in Upper Class socks, or bang loudly on the restroom door. On our most recent flight I was relieved when the stewardess handed my newly three year-old-son some Love Hearts on touch down into Heathrow. They were the perfect distraction to stop his plaintive screams of  “save me mommy” as he wrestled with the idea of being strapped to his own seat for the first time. When the other boys woke up too tired to eat their breakfast the friendly steward suggested he wrap the croissants for the taxi-ride to their grandparents.

The return to profitability of some airlines has been partly driven by the return of the business class traveller. So whilst Virgin staff’s motivation to keep kids happy may come from altruism more likely it’s commercially driven to secure their business clienteles’ loyalty. In June Malaysian Airlines took a radical stance in response to their first class customers’ complaints about babies interrupting their sleep with crying.  Whilst this ban may offend some wealthy parents prepared to pay for their kids’ first class treatment this might be an astute move by Malaysian Airlines. They could be saving us stress all round, the first class cabin is kept content and parents avoid heightened anxiety and guilt as their kids disturb other passengers who’ve paid a significant amount of money for a little more on-board comfort.

When we fly economy class the cabin is invariably filled with families and younger kids and we don’t experience the same degree of hostility as when we go premium. It feels a bit more how I imagine wartime spirit was – united in getting through the experience. Off duty grandparents distract the kids with silly faces, toys are shared down the aisles, and “don’t worry I’ve been there” is as familiar a phrase as fasten your seatbelts. Surely this is the solution to stick all us parents together in economy. However there are practical reasons why parents travel premium class – to ensure their kids get a good nights’ sleep and to make sure they’ve enough extra space and luggage allowance to accommodate the volume of kit that travels with young kids. Aside from practical reasons enforcing a ban in premium classes doesn’t always work for the modern parent as they struggle to play different roles simultaneously. Parents can’t always switch off from work whilst travelling with their families - they need the space in premium class to work or rest before touching down to a conference call or a quick meeting in an international office.

The airline’s basic segmentation model of dividing customers by premium-ness has not radically altered since it was first devised in the 1970’s. Except how we live and work has altered beyond all recognition. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the segmentation model and offer a more fluid proposition based upon customer need-states for which various levels of premium could be charged. Planes could be zoned more effectively with play zones, work zones, rest zones, eating zones and drinking zones, customers could move through some or all of these as their patterns and moods change. Other points in the customer journey would be aligned with this - Virgin’s Upper Class Club House at Heathrow is close to embracing this with their nearly drive through check in, sound proofed kid’s zone, pool tables, quiet areas, dining areas and spa. If this were translated to the on-board experience it would secure our loyalty.

My husband fed up with our fellow passenger’s negative commentary about the kids and the special brand of anxiety it causes him announced during landing we should fly economy to and from the UK from now on. The thought of the three kids with their feet all over my lap, having to sleep balanced on one butt cheek, not to mention foregoing the welcome drink of champagne made me feel temporarily airsick. In this new century, albeit up against economic pressures, it would be great to redesign the flying experience to make it universally enjoyable and relaxing; and potentially more profitable for airlines.