Opinion

Travelling with kids, in-flight tensions and the joy of taking the middle way

When tensions rise mid-flight, you can choose to pursue a pragmatic compromise over an unrealistic utopia

The wing of an aeroplane

Image: Ross Parmly on Unsplash

In August 2013 I was flying home from a holiday in Marrakech with my family when an incident broke out. My son, who was 18 months old, began to cry loudly and persistently shortly after take off, as babies often do. It was stressful and annoying but I had faith that a bit of Peppa Pig on the iPad plus a bottle of milk would eventually appease him. There was, after all, a four-hour flight ahead of us.

Then a guy in the seat in front of us turned around and said “What exactly is the plan here?” He was a large guy with a beard in his early sixties. He reminded me of the film director Francis Ford Coppola. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he was on about.

“What do you mean?” I smiled, while jiggling my son on my lap.

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“What I mean is, do you have a plan to stop your kid from crying or are we just gonna have to put up with this the whole way?” he asked.

Anyone who has ever been a parent of young kids, on a crowded night flight after an expensive holiday that was supposed to relax you but turned out to be just as exhausting as life at home only much, much hotter, will be unsurprised by my reaction. 

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Can’t you get up and walk him up and down the aisle a bit?” he said.

“Why don’t you fucking do it?” I said, holding my infant son out.

“What?!” he replied.

“You heard me, you fucking do it if you know so much about babies.”

“Wait, you want ME to walk your baby up and down the plane?” 

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. And I tried to hand my kid over the back of his seat to him. He recoiled in horror, as if I was trying to hand him a sack full of shit. 

He shut up after that. This was a rare case of me responding to conflict in a way that defuses rather than escalates the situation. There are only a few moments in life that unfold as if they would in a movie, and this was one of mine.

This week I found myself back on a flight with my son, who is now 11 years old. We were heading for New York in the very cheapest seats available. Leg room was thin on the ground and we had over seven hours of confinement ahead of us when the bloke in front of my lad decided to recline the back of his seat, knocking a drink off his fold-down table and sending his iPad flying.

I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round looking as if he had half expected some fallout. I had him down as a serial seat recliner: the sort of bloke who made a policy of trying it on at an early stage of every flight, testing the water to see just how much of the piss he could possibly take. A lifelong Tory voter, was my guess.

“Mate, you’re crushing my son.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. Plus you just knocked his drink and his iPad over.”

We eyed each other for a moment, contemplating our next moves. It was so early in the flight that any escalation of hostilities could be lethal. I let the silence hang for a while and waited. Eventually he said: “Well, maybe he could move his seat back as well.”

“But what about the person behind him?” I asked.

“Well, they could move their seat back too…” he replied.

“Mate, where would we be if we all did the selfish thing and encouraged everyone else to do the same? This is how societies fall apart!”

A look of confusion flashed across his eyes, reminiscent of the bloke on that plane from Marrakech. Then he said: “How about we split the difference?” and moved his seat back up by 50%.

It was an outcome we were all happy with and reflected the beauty of pursuing a pragmatic compromise over an unrealistic utopia. A fine advertisement for the often maligned worldview of centrist dads like me.

Vote Starmer.

Read more from Sam Delaney here

Sort your head out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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