Kid-free zones on planes: it's about time

Because we were all kids once, we empathise with the littlies about the ordeal they’re subjected to whenever they travel with their parents.

If it’s not the barometric pressure changes which create discomfort, bordering on pain, in your ears, it’s being forced to live in an adult world, where everyone has to sit down, like, forever and you get ssshhhed if you try to say something in a normal, playground voice.

There’s nothing that gets on adults’ nerves like kids in aeroplanes but, in the age of “rights” where any number of special interests, including those speaking for kids, clamour for unique group privileges, kids-free flying is a popular demand that will probably never be met by most Western airlines.

However, Malaysia’s two main airline groups have provided a way through the morass by creating kids-free zones in their biggest planes on long-haul routes.

Malaysia Airlines went first in 2011 when it banned kids in first class on its 747s and extended the policy in 2012 when it introduced the superjumbo A380 on twice-daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to London.

The A380 kids policy applies only to the upper deck’s tiny economy section of 70 seats behind the 66 seats in business class. However, it’s not an outright ban: the airline still has bassinets in the upper deck economy section and will allow kids if there’s a kids overflow from the lower deck.

In any case, there are still baby bassinets on the upper deck in business class, so MAS is simply trying to make the upper deck quieter than it otherwise might be.

AirAsia X, which flies from Kuala Lumpur to the Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and now has an interlocking shareholding with Malaysia Airlines, this month also introduced kids-free “quiet zones” in the forward section of its economy class, where kids under 12 aren’t allowed. If you want a seat in the quiet zone, it's offered as an optional extra for which a surcharge applies.

“The airline is not banning kids from travelling, but instead, is enhancing the array of product offerings on board to suit its guests individual needs and preferences,” says AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani.

“This product enhancement allows our guests to have a more pleasant and peaceful journey with minimal noise and less disturbance. A heavenly package for those who want peace of mind.”

There’s no doubt where the demand is coming from: the corporate road warriors who pay the big bucks so they can hit the ground fresh after a long haul from the other side of the world.

At the Business Travel and Meetings Show in London this month, the organisers asked 1000 business travellers what most annoyed them about air travel and the kids issue was way out in front.

“Travellers have called for an over-18 service on airlines after three quarters admitted children drive them crazy when they’re travelling in first class,” the organisers said.

Of the 1000 respondents to the survey, 74 per cent said children was the biggest issue; 18 per cent were annoyed by travellers given free upgrades when they had paid full fare, while 15 per cent said they wanted more privacy when travelling in economy and 12 per cent were upset when they paid for first class and got what they considered an economy standard service.

“Unsurprisingly family and business travellers want very different experiences and the travel industry has taken that on board. A number of (European) train operators, for example, have introduced quiet zones.

“The idea of banning children from cabins altogether is certainly an interesting one – I’d be fascinated to see how airlines react.”

Initially, the new AirAsia X quiet zone applies to only 63 seats in seven rows of economy at the front of the plane separated from the main cabin by dividers, toilets and galleys.

Even in AirAsia X's squeezy nine-abreast economy-class layout, I’d punt that the quiet zone idea will become popular. So who will be the first Western carrier to copy it?

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