The author, sipping champagne in business class, while her kids were in economy (Photo: Jennifer Howze)
I was just settling into my spacious business-class seat, when I started thinking about my children. “I kind of miss them,” I said to my husband, sipping a glass of free champagne. “Do you think they’re OK?”
“They’re loving being without us,” he insisted.
I leaned back into the downy comfort of the lie-flat seat. Of course they were.
The kids weren’t 30,000 feet below us being looked after by grandma. They were just seated a couple of cabins away in premium economy, amusing themselves with their iPads and in-flight touch screens.
We are a frequent-flying family. Since I’m an expat American living in London, we’re frequently boarding planes to visit family and friends back home.
This past Christmas, we had the option of booking two business class tickets using miles. But it meant the other two tickets would only be premium economy. We hesitated. Should we fly business while consigning our 16- and 11-year-old to less desirable seats? The moment of doubt quickly passed. We pressed the button.
There has been a lot of talk recently about parents and children sitting in different cabins, thanks to the #UnitedWithIvy controversy. After Elit Kirschenbaum was prevented from holding her disabled 3-year-old daughter Ivy in her lap for takeoff, she launched the #UnitedWithIvy campaign, which sparked a storm on social media. Soon after, it was reported that the Kirschenbaums were seated in first class while their special-needs daughter and some of their other children were ticketed in coach. The backlash against Elit Kirschenbaum was brutal.
The response reveals how divided we are about parents sitting a class or two up from their children on airplanes. Is it something only practiced by spoiled celebrities with traveling nannies or wealthy, checked-out parents? What about togetherness and a sense of community? Do people who sit in business while their kids sit in coach love free champagne more than they love their children?
In my case, maybe.
But when I wrote positively about our separate and unequal seats on my blog Jenography.net, the response wasn’t censure. It was envy.
“How are they going to know how good they have it when they finally work their way to the front of the plane if they haven’t first suffered in the back?” wrote commenter Catherine Hanna, who has also flown separately from her children with no regrets.
An attorney from Austin, Texas, Hanna was upgraded to first class with her husband during a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu while her teens remained in coach. She felt no qualms about taking advantage of the caviar, the sundae cart, and the super-attentive service. “It’s like Downton Abbey. All I remember feeling was glee,” she told me later.
And why not? What parent wouldn’t like to swap hours of cramped child supervision and snack curation for a mile-high date night with their partner that includes a film, a nice meal, wine, and a down pillow?
“We see the practice especially during holiday times from the UK to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and the States,” says Stuart Lodge, a director at RoundtheWorldFlights.com, a travel booking company based in London. A lot of people do it the way we did — with miles — and it works best if the children fly regularly, he says, because they know how to conduct themselves. Yet even though “business class is lost on a lot of kids,” Lodge says, “some people feel guilty the first time.”
Which suggests that after that first time, they get over it. We assuaged our own slight bit of guilt by reminding ourselves that we had done our time in economy (and would be there again on our next transatlantic flight); that the children are smaller and therefore their seats probably felt like business; and that they have more cartilage in their skeletons, making coach class more comfortable for them. As for “quality time,” they would rather take advantage of onboard entertainment than have heart-to-hearts with us.
More importantly, they were old enough at 16 and 11 to act appropriately, look after one another, and respond in an emergency. At the beginning of every flight, we always read the instruction card and locate the nearest exits. This time, we expressly told them they should follow crew instructions and get to safety if needed — we would find them.
“Some children enjoy that feeling of responsibility and independence, knowing that their parents aren’t that far away,” says Sarah Tucker, author of four travel books including Have Baby Will Travel and the A to Zen of Travel. She suggests trying it out first on a shorter flight and floating the idea with children beforehand to see how they feel.
I accept that it’s an idea that would never get off the ground with some families, for reasons ranging from “what if the plane goes down” to the risk of pedophiles. These are serious concerns, but to us they seem vanishingly remote.
Naturally, the opinion of the people in charge also matters. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority states that “young children and infants” should be in the same row as parents. The Federal Aviation Authority’s site only addresses the usage of child seats, not separate seating.
Airlines also vary. While Delta’s site states “adult and child must travel in the same cabin.” British Airways allows children from the age of five to travel in any cabin as long as you’re on the flight.
The real question to ask about flying in separate cabins is this: How young is too young? We wouldn’t have considered doing it even a couple of years ago. But now, my stepson babysits regularly. We know he can be responsible for himself and for another child. When the two of them are on their own, my daughter acts more grown-up, too.
Rabia Shahenshah, a New York-based luxury and wellness travel specialist, says clients tend to consider it with children aged 9 to 16, and the decision can be painstaking. “Even if the parents are ok with it, they may not want to appear to be ok with it,” she says.
We were OK with it.
Did sitting apart bother my children, who spent most of the flight plugged into the onboard films, playing on their iPads, or napping? “It was OK,” my daughter told me, shrugging her shoulders.
Our teenager eyed us skeptically and told us that he didn’t need us to fly with him. Then he added: “But we definitely get the good seats next time.”
We’ll see about that.
Jennifer Howze is a journalist and family travel blogger based in London. She is cofounder of BritMums, the UK’s largest parent blogger network, and writes about family travel on Jenography.net. She has contributed travel articles to The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, and Frommer’s Budget Travel, among others.