Barry Newman

Feisty fliers

It was close to midnight, some years prior to my retirement, when the plane finally lifted off the Newark International Airport runway and began the long flight home. I boarded grumpy and exhausted, having just completed an 80-hour week of meetings and workshops with clients that seemed hell bent on redefining the concepts of disagreeable, ornery, and argumentative. Nor was my mood much improved by the diet of tuna and low-fat blueberry yogurt that I survived on for the last five days. As business trips go, this was one of the least pleasant in recent memory.

Which was why I kept an anxious eye on the Please fasten seatbelt indicator, and impatiently waited for it to be grayed-out. I looked forward to reclining and snuggling into my seat as comfortably as is possible in coach. I also flirted with the idea of hanging a Do Not Disturb sign around my neck, since I intended to drift off into a dreamless oblivion and not wake up until the Israel skyline was visible from the window. In the end I decided that the flight attendant would be sufficiently reasonable not to awaken me for a middle-of-the-night dinner of rubbery schnitzel and dehydrated couscous.

At any rate, some twenty agonizing moments passed before the indicator finally flickered off. Back went the seat, off went my shoes, into place went the pillow, and out like a light went I. It wasn’t very long, though, before fate let me know who was boss.

I waded no deeper than into the shallowest depth of sleep before I became aware that seated one row behind me and directly to my right was a young family that included two toddlers who almost immediately entered into a competition for their parents’ attention. The two spared no effort; whining, kvetching, throwing toys, and incessant howling were ploys they obviously mastered and artfully applied throughout most of the journey. On occasion, one would fall into a light slumber, but the other more than made up for the slack. There was a rare moment or two when they would both collapse from the strain of their rivalry, but hardly any time passed before the two awakened and renewed their struggle for supremacy. Neither they nor their parents seemed in any way concerned by, or even seemingly aware of, the dirty looks coming from other passengers in their immediate vicinity, as well as from more than a few a bit farther away.

One of Israel’s newspapers, I recalled despite my drowsiness, dealt with something like this a few months ago. A debate was triggered by a reader who accused those parents that allow their children to run rampant at 30,000 feet and do little if anything to prevent them from disturbing fellow fliers of gross negligence. The bottom line, if memory serves, was general sympathy but, well, kids are kids. And those in the terrible twos, it was agreed, are indeed a handful.

Sure they are. But the conclusions of the paper’s unofficial forum were of little consolation. The two little handfuls keeping both me and many others awake were not in a park cheerfully running after pigeons, nor were they even in a shul playing tag between the aisles. Cute and delightful have limits, and noise tends to be magnified in cramped, enclosed environments. The monotonous hum of a jet’s motor, I learned, is no match for a couple of kids with a limited attention span and a compelling need to be noticed.

In desperation, I flagged down a flight attendant who was walking by. “Excuse me, miss,” I said, “but is there any chance of moving to a different seat?” I resisted adding, “Even one next to an obese snorer with horrid body odor.”

She furtively glanced at the pair of howlers and, with a pitying, understanding look replied, “Sorry, sir, the plane is fully booked. Not an empty seat.”

Nodding, I lowered my voice to a whisper and asked if, maybe, she could gently suggest to the parents of the two that a more concerted effort to keep their offspring muted would be greatly appreciated. “Sir,” she answered with a smile, “I’ve worked the Newark-Tel Aviv flight for the last three years. This isn’t the first time that we’ve had, um, spirited toddlers on board and it surely will not be the last. And I can tell you this from experience, talking to their parents will do absolutely no good. As far as they’re concerned, what’s now going on is perfectly natural. Sorry.”

As my last hope for a quiet flight walked away, I stared absently at the display of the plane’s flight path and data on the mini-screen embedded into the seat in front of me. The estimated time of arrival was still more than eight hours away, I ruefully noted, and began to wonder if unruly children on a flight justified a claim for pitzuim.  Probably not, I figured. You paid for a seat to Tel Aviv, I can hear the airline’s customer service rep saying to me, and you got a seat. Nowhere, the guy would most likely add, is it written nor should it even be inferred that the price of a ticket includes peace and quiet. A couple of kosher meals, yes. A can or two of beer, no problem. A working toilet, hopefully. But peace and quiet; hey, pal, you were in a 727, not the New York City Public Library.

So, resigned that I’d catch no more than a momentary catnap now and then, I tried to get as relaxed as possible. Which was when I got that terrible longing for a cigarette. Although I was still then a smoker, I had long stopped cursing the law that banned smoking on international flights. Oddly enough, I was rarely bothered by the need for a smoke while in the air, even during these endless trans-oceanic flights. It’s like Shabbat, I guess; when your brain is programmed that you can’t smoke, the rest of your body kind of lets you alone. On this flight, though, brain and lungs were out of synch, the result, I’m sure, of the endless screeching of the pint-size dynamic duo seated a couple of feet away from me.

Well, maybe it was mental clarity that comes with fatigue, or maybe it was the caffeine rush I got from gulping down a couple of cans of diet coke, but suddenly I made an intriguing association between what was and what is. And from this association I came to the inevitable conclusion that the same law that denies me the right to light up in an airplane should also guarantee me a flight undisturbed by the wailing of bored, confined children.

Fliers who smoke need not be reminded that until the year 2000, several rows in the back of a plane were reserved for smokers. Smoking section or non-smoking section was usually the first question a reservation clerk asked when you checked in. On most planes, in fact, the no smoking indicator is still part of the display panel, only this time the depiction of the cigarette with an X through it stays on. Whether or not those were the good ol’ days depends on individual perspective; in my case, suffice to say that although I had gotten used to being without nicotine for extended periods of time, the ability to watch a film or read a book with a cigarette was most definitely, if not sorely, missed.

The rows that I would have been seated in during that earlier era are still there, I saw. This time, though, there is nothing special about them. They’ve not been set aside or reserved for passengers with special requirements or needs. Maybe, though, they should be.

Families flying with toddlers, it struck me, should be assigned to those seats way in the back. Just as I had to sit there in order to keep my cigarette from bothering or annoying others, so should families flying with small children be prevented from disturbing as many of their fellow passengers as possible. “Children under four or no children under four?” should therefore be the first question raised by reservation clerks, not window or aisle.

The more I thought about this the more it made good sense. Why should chance determine if I – or anybody else for that matter – cross the ocean comfortably and relaxed? The airlines, after all, charge good money for their seats; the least they can do is make a concerted effort to provide their passengers with a quiet, undisturbed trip. Cranky children can be as annoying as the smell of smoke, maybe more.

I’d even go one step further. Let a few rows in front of these reserved spots be discounted and up for grabs. Some fliers, I’m sure, are immune to the noise of tumulting toddlers, or at least not very much bothered by them; let less-sensitive fliers volunteer to sit in their proximity for, say, five percent off the price of their ticket or for an additional thousand frequent flier miles. Who knows – they might get lucky and wind up with a quiet flight as well as receive a bonus.

I took a peek over my shoulder. In all honesty, the parents of the two untiring whiners were not having an easy time. Their father was trying to interest one in a coloring book, while their mother attempted to bribe the other with a cookie. Neither ruse succeeded. What would their reaction be, I asked myself, if they were forced into the back rows. They’d explode in indignation, I suspect, and charge the airline with one sort of discrimination or another. Well, I said to myself, too damn bad. If these kids started their shenanigans during a concert or in a museum, they and their parents would be politely but brusquely escorted to the exit. While cruising some five or six miles above Europe there’s no exit to which they could escorted, of course, so getting them out of the way at the very beginning is the next best thing.

Over the next several hours I added a few refinements to my idea. A heavy curtain, I thought, can be used to separate those in the children’s section from the rest of us. Complimentary Valium, I decided, might be a bit too extreme, but some soothing music piped into that cordoned-off area might have a calming effect. And maybe we can get one of those sky marshals to dress as a clown and provide some entertainment back there from time to time.

I was all smiles as the plane landed. This will be, I was sure, the biggest thing to hit the air since Lindberg. The airline industry will call it the idea of the century, fliers will bless me to no end, airline attendants will think of me as their savior; hell, maybe Time will even cite me as their Man of the Year.

As I was retrieving my stuff from the overhead bin, I was surprised by a tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me,” the mother of the inspirations of my idea said, “you speak English, don’t you?”

“A little,” I replied with smile, trying to hide the fact that she was no more than a hairbreadth away from being strangled. She grinned at my New York accent.

“I want to apologize if Shimmy and Malkie disturbed you. This is the first time either of them flew and they both found it very difficult to sleep or even stay still for very long. They’re also very excited about meeting their Israeli cousins. Nothing my husband and I tried managed to get them quiet. I feel absolutely terrible.”

I looked over at Shimmy and Malkie who were, needless to say, finally sleeping soundly. Kids are just little people, I though ruefully. I also get unsettled when placed in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment. Why shouldn’t they? And, I also asked myself, why should they and their parents be intentionally made to be even more uncomfortable?

Sighing silently, I mentally crumpled up my revolutionary idea and threw it into the virtual wastepaper basket. “Don’t worry about it,’ I said to the young mother. “Just enjoy your visit here. My kids were also toddlers once, so you don’t have to tell me how much of a handful they can be.”

Now where the hell did I hear that before?

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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