A recent Facebook post went viral when on an internal US flight to Alabama, the mother of a screaming baby thanked another mother for offering to try to calm her inconsolable baby daughter. The screaming baby spent the journey's duration peacefully (and importantly, silently) asleep on the surrogate's lap.
The subject of babies and young children sharing an enclosed and inescapable space with adults on an airplane is and will remain a source of controversy, varying from those travelers of the intolerant persuasion who have never had a child, clueless when it comes to the whims and precariousness of a baby's often incommunicable foibles, to those who accept those foibles because they also acknowledge the uncontrollable factors of being human. Yet that inchoate neurology that has yet to rationalize a few hours of consideration for others, is not just the infant-on-a-plane predicament, as those of us who have taken off with the seat in front reclining on our foreheads know only too well.
Una Lamarche writes in the The New York Times about the need for a certain understanding of what parents have to put up with. It is true that just because a baby hollers for hours, this is not always an indication of parental spoiling/negligence/uselessness/ignorance or inbuilt-tuned-out deafness. We need to heed to our better selves, even those of us who do not wish to ever re-visit the scarily exhaustive levels of tiredness when it came to comforting our own crying baby on a plane.
Surely airlines should be partly responsible for creating a helpful environment so that our better selves can find magnanimity towards fellow travelers? Economy travel has become a game of deceit in which our senses are duped by a cabin design of elegant tones of grey and titular status ("World Traveler"), into believing that the proportions of our surroundings are normal-sized when the reality is that they are impossibly small to endure not just with ourselves but with 300 others, asleep or crying. Economy travel is like wearing a pretty dress two sizes too small for a long, long time. No amount of cabin crew starched uniform, smiling faces, and direction-giving, ("turn right and it's all the way down," no kidding) will make economy travel bearable, and bring out the best in us.
The undoubted exacerbation of having to fold limbs into spaces that don't fit them, to remain in painful contortions of semi-flexed knees and necks over periods of up to 20 hours with numb feet, competing elbows on plastic stick-thick armrests, and hair and armchair yanked backwards in the desperate attempts of others to wedge themselves out of their own inextricable positions, often feels inhumane.
Not even prisoners endure this type of treatment; solitary confinement is at least solitary and not heaped into the armpits and breath of a stranger. Claustrophobia is on the rise judging by my fellow passengers who have apologized to me in advance when my eyes have been seared by their smelling salts, and my reading interrupted by vociferous burps, grabbing hands and drunkenness. Our palpable relief at the end of such journeys is only due to our gratitude for having reached our destination in one piece, and like childbirth, we conveniently forget the ordeal of the last however many hours.
These conditions make us phobic and everything "cist" -- against larger people resenting their extra poundage when they spill into our own seat, against smokers and their rancid clothes, against whistlers who won't shut up, snorers, groovers to their iTunes, and those who are nervous (get a grip!), in a hurry (wait!), old (hurry up!), young (grow up!), with a cold (stop breathing!), and yes, parents of screaming kids (do your job!)
British Airways sometimes asks me to provide feedback after a flight. A cheery text arrives as I queue through passport control asking me to rate it between "10" (great) and "1" (ready to sue, I presume). And when I answer with an "8" they come back and ask my reasons for determining that particular score. Was it the service provided by the cabin crew? Were they friendly and approachable? And my answer invariably is "because there was no one sitting next to me".
Perhaps a foot or two more of space could turn us into the caring beings we are so often not on a plane, desperately uncomfortable, wedged into a tube of metal 30,000 feet above land, pinned and needled into submission, with crappy earphones and a screaming child.