The following is the first in a series on How to Fly with Babies and with Dignity. This premiere piece covers check-in. The series will end, someday, at the luggage carousel. It is purely un-factual, based on personal experience which was gleaned mostly from intercontinental flights---admittedly a different beast than the more finicky domestic situations. Regardless, I hope it helps for any voyage.
By the time she was a year old, my daughter had eight countries on three continents stamped in her two passports. By her second birthday, she and I had clocked over 150 hours in the air together (that’s not including layovers, some as long as 11 hours). Only about 40 hours were accompanied by M., and almost 60 of those hours I was (sometimes massively) pregnant with the 2nd babe.
During that time, we were upgraded three times; granted 150 pounds of extra luggage for no extra cost; escorted to the front of a very long, slow-moving visa line (in Kenya); welcomed into the business class lounge on two separate occasions with an economy ticket (in Boston); and once M. was allowed to sit with me in business class an entire 8 hour flight, although he held an economy class ticket.
I believe, sadly, that the art of air travel has been lost. I don’t withhold blame from the airlines, cheap tickets, or even the terrorists, but passengers have some responsibility as well. So I decided long ago: just because passengers are treated like cattle, does not mean I have to act like a cow. I now approach any flight as I might prepare for the stage: I bring style and grace, and focus and detachment, along with my luggage and babies. In other words, I become someone else. I'm nice, and sort of elegant. It takes extraordinary effort to fly with dignity, especially with a baby. But it’s still easier than crossing the country by horse and wagon, or crossing the Atlantic in a ship―we still have it pretty good, even if the seats are small―and so I don’t mind making a little exertion to maintain some composure over 10,000 miles and 20 hours.
The first suggestion: No matter what class you fly, dress beautifully. Be the exception. Why passengers dress like their going to a show-your-ass/I-HEART-white trash fashion convention is beyond me. 'Beautifully' doesn’t mean constricting Victorian collars or wigs for the gentlemen, just lovely clothes that don’t advertise their brand name in bold letters across your bum. When you dress like a sophisticated, first class passenger, you are more likely to be treated that way. When you dress like a fat pig wearing pajamas and carrying a refrigerator as your carry-on item… well…
And, most important, bring out the best for the babies: sailor suits, little dresses, Mary Janes... whatever. Travel is actually an occasion for special outfits, not the opposite. Flight attendants and other passengers will respond with smiles and nods to each other as your child approaches, not the usual dread. You will be welcomed, not dismissed. Logistically, it's easier to change a girl’s diaper in a dress (can do it sneakily at the seat without having to negotiate that gross bathroom diaper-changing shelf thing). And, if you’re visiting relatives, it subconsciously eases their anxiety and makes them feel good to know they're worth dressing up for. Yes, there will be ruination: puike, pee, food---everything all over. Bring a change of outfit, and plan to visit the drycleaners later. (How often do they wear the outfits anyway before they grow out of them? We need such occassions.)
If you don’t have a baby, borrow one. Team up with a single mother (or just ask your brother for one of his babies… he has like a million of them). Once, struggling down a long corridor in Healthrow to the lone Africa gate, a fellow passenger asked if he could help me. He escorted past the boarding line and right to my seat. His wife, he mentioned, was a mid-wife. He wasn’t afraid of mothers and babies.
If at all possible, fly business class if you’re traveling with a baby under two years old, especially if you’re alone. The baby travels for 10% of the ticket price and gets a luggage allowance, so you can almost justify it to your husband. If you’re crossing time zones, business class will soften the blow of jetlag, often saving the week upon arrival of illness, sleeplessness and general fury (does that have a price?). With every business class ticket I’ve had, they have found two seats together so the girl didn’t have to sit on my lap. (On British Air, where the seats fully recline to beds, she actually has a little play area.) It’s probably not for your comfort that the airline goes to such extremes. It’s for the other business class passengers, who actually are business people and freak out when they see a baby settle in. (BUT: if your baby is dressed well and you are gracious, you will soon learn that many businessmen and women have babies at home. They’re cold at first, but once you’ve proven no threat, they love to help.)
Get to the airport at least 45 minutes before the other passengers. This insures a leisurely check-in, and time to chat with the check-in lady. There are no passengers creeping up behind you, no irritability or panic. The attendant might even be bored between waves of refugees and willing to talk. If nothing else, it will assure you the bulkhead if you’re in economy. But moreover, these people have power. They have, after all, that hidden control panel in front of them. They can make little notes to the gate people, or to people on your next layover. It’s amazing. Two of my upgrades were made during a layover based on the notes from the original check-in. Mention you’re pregnant (even if you’re not). Mention the first trimester is hard, you know, always… sick. Mention (conversationally) you have such a long flight ahead and... hmm? Oh, I work for UNICEF, in Africa… Yes, the starving children. Oh that’s right, you guys collect change for UNICEF. That’s a great program! (Have no shame.)
If you really are pregnant, and you have the slightest cause for concern (and with today’s technology they always seems to find one), bring a letter from your doctor, place it with your passport and ticket at the check-in desk, and smile a sort of subtly-concerned, slightly martyr-ish, but not obnoxious smile. She’ll make notes.
My father was a pilot and as children we flew often, and often alone with my mother. (Everything I know about traveling is from my mother's graceful style.) That was the 70s and 80s, and with our special passes, we were not like other passengers. We were recognized immediately as part of 'the family'. Sometimes we even knew the pilot or one of the stewardesses. Although I pay for tickets now, and those glorious days of stylish travel are behind us, I think I maintain the slightest glimmer of hope that they will return. Until then, let's pretend.