Child-Free Sections on Airline Take Flight Amidst Controversy

John Kinnear parses the praise and cries of discrimination on Quiet Zones in economy class sections

Last September, Asia’s largest budget carrier, Air Asia, announced that, beginning this week, they will be offering a “quiet zone” on flights to China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and Nepal. By quiet zone they mean a sectioned off area of the plane with “minimal noise and disturbances, soft ambient lighting” and of course – no kids (12 and under).

This has caused quite a stir among some of my parent friends. One friend was even offended enough to compare the kid-free section to Rosa Parks being relegated to the back of the bus at the beginning of the civil rights movement of the 1950′ and 60’s’s. I stepped in and said that I didn’t think it was a very fair comparison and a LONG conversation ensued. In the end, we agreed to disagree and she agreed that she wouldn’t be flying on AirAsia in the near future. I don’t think that they are going to have trouble filling her and her kid’s seat.

I actually think the “Quiet Zones” are a good idea with some very practical reasons. I have had wonderful experiences with airlines trying to make families comfortable. Pilot pins, extra soda/pretzels/cookies, kids’ magazines, incredibly kind and caring flight staff. Still, airlines have a vested interest in the satisfaction of all their customers – even the ones without kids. I fully understand that there are some people who would prefer not to sit by me and my kids. I’m ok with that and I am OK with AirAsia’s “Quiet Zone”. I’ll explain why by answering some of the comments and questions I’ve seen bouncing around in my parenting spheres.

“This is ageism and should not be tolerated. If you’re going to have a “quiet section” you should just not let noisy people sit there – regardless of age.”

So let me get this one straight: Let everyone, including kids, sit in the quiet section and when they start to be noisy, they have to move. The logistics alone on this are staggering. What constitutes noisy? Who decides? Who tells the noisy people they have to move? What if the rest of the plane is full?

More often than not, kids are louder than adults. That doesn’t make me an ageist. That makes me a realist. Sure, I know plenty of kids who will happily bury their heads in an iPhone for a few hours of Angry Birds, but I know many more adults who can stare directly forward with no stimulation at all without breaking into a half an hour of high volume renditions of “The Wheels on the Bus.” Why not let those adults have seven aisles?

“My kid is quiet on planes. Why should I be forced to sit in a section with other, unruly children?”

That is fantastic, and I commend you. Fly enough with your kid, and at least one time they won’t be perfect. One time my nephew cried from Salt Lake City to Portland for two straight hours. Every other flight has been a cakewalk. When you have tens of thousands of people flying with kids every year, you are going to see a lot of kids’ “one time”. Maybe you and your incredibly well behaved kid could sit in the section with kids to set a good example!

Let’s be realistic. “The child-free area is sectioned off from the rest of the plane by toilets and bulkheads, the theory being you won’t be able to hear the kids who are toward the back of the plane,” CNN reported. The plane isn’t going to be divided into Masterpiece Theater and Lord of the Flies. The 90% of the plane that does allow kids is not going to be overrun by the lost boys. If anything the sleeping adults in the “quiet zone” free up the flight staff to get my kid an extra ginger-ale when her ears start popping. Win/win!

“People should just invest in noise cancelling headphones or an iPod.”

The people on that flight have already paid hundreds of dollars to be on the flight. That is a silly suggestion.

“This isn’t needed because responsible parents should have kids with manners who know how to behave themselves.”

Responsible parents don’t have kids with manners. Responsible parents have kids to whom they are teaching manners. There is a learning curve. Sometimes that takes some on-site training.

When I take my kids to a restaurant or a movie and they start misbehaving I do my best to calm the situation and teach them how to behave in public. When that doesn’t work and I can tell we’re a distraction to others enjoyment of their dinner/movie, I remove my child from the situation.

Leaving a plane is a little more difficult. Not impossible—but really difficult.

I prefer not to take my kids on planes at all, but sometimes it is needed. The times it is necessary don’t necessarily fall in the most convenient portion of a child’s manners training program. For instance, If my three-month-old baby is crying because rapid changes in air pressure make his head feel like it is going to explode, I can’t tell him that he’s being rude. You know what would be nice? A section of the airplane filled with like-minded adults who know they might be sitting by kids. Wait! It’s the entire plane except for one partitioned section of seven rows? Huzzah!!

And finally…

“How is this any different than Rosa Parks and the Jim Crow Laws of the South?”

I’m going to just set aside the fact that this isn’t happening in the US. I’m also going to ignore the fact that this is a company policy and not a law you can be arrested and thrown in jail for breaking. I don’t want to speak for a whole race of people either – so I can’t catergorically say that comparing the civil rights struggle of black Americans in the 1960’s to tiny screaming humans that poop their pants and scream a lot may be seen as offensive in some circles. The comparison between the two is about as unproductive as passive-aggressively saying that I’m not going to make specific arguments and then making said arguments in the same sentence. You know what? I’m just going to leave this one alone.

Look. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. Aside from bars and strip clubs, I can take my kids pretty much anywhere I want. The world is literally their playground. Planes are a special beast. They are a nightmare scenario. You and hundreds of other people are trapped on a multi-ton machine, hurtling hundreds of miles per hour 30,000 feet above the earth. If seven rows of people would prefer to experience that scenario without my infant screaming, or my toddler kicking the back of their seat, then I am OK with that. I would rather worry about my kid than worry about bugging them. And, if for some weird reason, I have to travel alone on business from India to Nepal, I’ll be flying AirAsia.

—editor’s note: Passengers can opt for the “Quiet Zone” for an additional cost of anywhere between $11-$35, a standard fee for picking specific seats in economy class, according to CNN. If there’s a buck to be made, American carriers will find it.

—Photo by xersti/Flickr

About John Kinnear

John Kinnear is a father of two and author of Ask Your Dad. He has written for his mom, his high school literary magazine, and the Huffington Post. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.


  1. Put the child-free “quiet” section at the back of the plane.
    Problem solved.

  2. You all hear about this creature who hurled racial slurs at a 19 month old then slapped him? On a plane, on its descent? He’d pay for the upgrade if he wasn’t going to jail, which really doesn’t justify the crime.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    It seems like the central question is who has to pay what to get what they want. If two customers want things that may not be compatible, who gets their way and who has to pay more for “extra”? Who has to do more to accommodate the other – wear earplugs, have fewer choices, pay more money, etc.

    So, in this case, many parents argue that they have the right as parents to fly without additional restrictions, or that children should not face unnecessary restrictions. On the other hand, many others argue they have some right to ask airlines to make the flight less noisy. The “civil rights” question is which rights are the most fundamental.

    Ideally, there should be some way to share so that competing people get most of what they want without unfairly inconveniencing the other.

    I won’t protest any airline policy that puts kids far away from me, but I do think it’s somewhat unfair to have a blanket ban based strictly on age, unless we’re talking infants, maybe. All kids under the age of 12 seems like an extreme measure. One problem, as mentioned in the article, is that there are really no consequences for people who annoy others, so the only way available to deal with it is to restrict certain groups of people.

    What would be fairer, but more cumbersome, is some kind of economic incentive for well-behaved people (of any age) and disincentive for poorly-behaved people (of any age). Some sort of “good behavior” rebate after the flight, or maybe some kind of “deposit” before the flight that you get back if you/your kids behaved well, like landlords have for cats sometimes. If an adult gets drunk and belligerent, that person has a financial penalty of some kind. If your kid disrupts other people, there’s a financial penalty for that as well. If your child is well-behaved, then you have nothing to worry about, and even have some additional incentive to make sure they behave. In one way, there’s already a “childfree” section by default – I’ve seen very few, if any, children flying first class. First class has evolved into a largely kid-free space, unofficially of course.

    One big difference between racial segregation and age segregation is the fact that your race is pretty permanent and being a child is entirely temporary. You can grow out of being a child, but you don’t grow out of being black. In terms of discrimination against parents, that’s also very different than racial discrimination, because (basically) no one chooses their race, but (basically) you become a parent because you’ve chosen to be a parent. If “parent” is an identity, it’s an identity that in almost every case you have chosen for yourself.

    Finally, does anyone really buy the idea of a “quiet section” on a plane? It would have to be separated by something relatively soundproof, or else there’s really no benefit. Piercing screams have a way of filling the entire space. It would be like the old practice of having a “smoking section,” as if smoke didn’t travel. The edge of the quiet section may not be a very quiet place.

  4. It would be tempting to put them somewhere else. I am more concerned of bad behaviour like people kicking the back of your chair, etc. For the very young who can’t pop their ears properly (can they?) I accept that they may cry so I usually have earphones but for kids that are older and know better it would annoy me, of course if the kid is having a panic attack and not being Dennis the menace I could be understanding.

    Personally I’d like to see wider seats on planes for some areas, I am 6’6, very large body both skeletal wise and I am overweight. I think my actual hip bone itself is wider than the 16-17 inch seats which makes it damn impossible to sit in fat or no fat. For a long trip where you need sleep though I’m sure the sounds of kids would be more annoying, makes me wonder would it be ethical to offer those parents/children some form of relaxation agent to ease them? Not sure if there are any safe drugs that could be taken.:P

    The only time I remember there being a problem was with a baby crying on a flight, tips I found online were chewing gum/maybe lollies (might make them hyper though) for kids over 3, staying awake for take-off and landing since we swallow more when awake, yawning (maybe try fake yawn yourself when they see to trigger a contagious yawn so it will ease pressure), or medicine to help. As for older kids a bit of discipline wouldn’t go astray, I’d probably suggest avoiding anything that gives them too much energy n makes them hyper since I remember as a child sugar would send me hyper and cause me to wanna get up n do heaps so sitting would have been intolerable and I would have been disruptive.

    Airplanes are tight though, everyone sitting is WELL WELL WELL within the “personal space” boundary people have so tensions are already high from proximity to strangers, then you have issues with size of seats, shoulders n larger people taking up your seat so planes pretty much just breed aggravation. Since it’s an enclosed space that kids screams will be far more potent when added to the annoyance of someone inside your personal space (the 30-50cm-ish bubble). I dream of a day when planes are bigger with far more room but in this tight-budget world I doubt that will happen, I avoid air-travel where possible due to size issues, being a giant is a pain in the ass. 😛

  5. I understand it, although it’s kind of funny from say, the perspective of conservative politics. The free marketeer types say “great, go ahead and segregate, if people are willing to pay for it, more power to you”. The pro-family types (and also the Ross Douthat women-should-start-breeding-because-fertility-is-economically-necessary crowd) might observe that our society lets people off the hook too easy when it comes to children. If our urge to stay away from kids is constantly enabled, does our society become even more child unfriendly than it is? Fewer God’s special little snowflakes, fewer native born youngsters working to support our increasing senior-heavy population, less political will to fund schools.

    It took me a long time to get used to the idea of having kids (let alone take care of them when they arrived in all their crying, poopy glory). Part of that was my family – widely scattered and inclined to have kids later. I was the youngest sibling and the youngest cousin. But it was also the child-free fantasyland most of us inhabit as young adults. My kids really humbled me. What are these creatures? The learning curve was steep. I don’t think I was alone in starting out as a dad with very few clues, and I have to think a lot of that is our society’s tendency to encourage segregation by age.

    • wellokaythen says:

      If we’re talking about “enabling urges” as a bad thing, then perhaps we should also address the ways that society enables the urge to reproduce. I heartily agree that we should not simply enable all urges just because they are urges. Add the urge to reproduce to that list. I heartily agree that we should avoid idealizing natural urges at the expense of common sense and the public good. Add the urge to reproduce to that list. Amen, brother.

  6. pdxprincess says:

    As a parent of a three year old, I understand people’s frustration when a child acts up on a plane for more than a few minutes. I think all parents will agree it is even more frustrating for the parent than the other passengers. Though the idea of a “quiet” section sounds nice to kid-free travelers, the idea of being forced to sit in a section with lots of other kids who may or may not be acting up throughout the flight sounds like pure hell for those traveling with young kids. They’ll set each other off…if one cries, they’ll all start crying. Also, we’ll probably all get stuck in the back of the plane with zero leg room and a very long wait to get off the plan upon landing. I would likely boycott any airline that tries to put such an unfair policy into action. At the very least, they had better give discounts to families traveling with kids since they are most definitely going to have a horrible flight. I’m quite sure the airlines will capitalize by charging folks more to sit in the exclusive “quiet” zone. Pffft!

  7. Kid free zones in planes = fantastic!!
    As a mother of almost 2 children (just 6 weeks to go!) I’d gladly pay the extra fee to not sit next to a little person (even though they may be incredibly well behaved with very prepared parents). If I’m paying out of my own pocket for a child free vacation, I’d spend the extra $50 to pick seats next to individuals who are less likely to vomit on me / try to eat my shoulder.
    On a 2 hour flight from Winnipeg to Edmonton our 1 year old decided to ‘give back’ the bottle of milk he’d consumed 30 minutes prior. No signs, no warning, no crying, just BLOUP, and he went back to watching the movie. My husband and I understood … $#!T happens, vomit happens. The 25 year old guy sitting in the widow seat next to us seemed less than thrilled. Bet you he’d pay the extra fee not to have to sit next to that smelly mess next time.
    Think of it … What’s the nicest/most expensive restaurant in your city? Do they have high chairs/booster seats? Not likely. Would you take your 2 year old there for dinner? Not likely. Your restaurants of choice right now include the ‘family casual’ type places. Not the ‘must have suit jacket’ type places. This is a choice you made when you decided to have kids. Now when you have a babysitter lined up for the evening, do you go to the same ‘family casual’ restaurant? Not likely. You go out for a treat to a nice ‘must have suit jacket’ type place, or a movie that’s not animated, or a play, or *shocking* to a bar/club/21+ establishment. Some places are just not geared for little people. Why should the plane be any different? I’m interested to learn if the people who are so against this are parents themselves? Or just the wishful thinkers.

  8. I hope they do this on every airline, especially for long-haul flights. Being surrounded by screaming brats does not make the heart grow fonder. The fact is that even when kids are not upset they are still pretty loud. Shrieking with laughter every 5 seconds is just as annoying as crying. I fly frequently and I wear earplugs on every flight. It’s not enough.

    Comparing a child-free zone to racial segregation is definitely offensive. It’s a white-priveledge comparison if ever I heard one. People can choose to be parents, they can not choose their race. When a person chooses to be a parent, they have tacitly decided that quiet is not important to them (or not as important as having said child).

    I haven’t seen Air Asia’s press release, but I’m betting that having a child-free zone does not mean that they will lock all parents and children into a small part of the airplane. The ride for parents with children will probably be exactly the same. Those of us who are child-free deserve a choice. Parents have already made theirs.

    • Not all people choose to be parents.

      • wellokaythen says:

        Do you mean not all parents are parents by choice?

        Maybe not explicitly and consciously in all cases. But, when you hold your baby in your arms for the first time, that moment is the result of dozens of decisions that people have made, certainly in the mother’s case decisions that she has made, if she’s living in 2013 in the United States. (Except in those extreme cases, hard to believe, when a woman had no idea she was pregnant until she gave birth in the bathroom stall.) Some of the options might seem so inconceivable that they don’t seem like choices at all, but that doesn’t mean there’s no choice being made. Perhaps as the biological father you have fewer choices, but unless she conceived by raping you, that pregnancy is a product of your own risk-taking.

        Making no conscious decision or just going along with where life is taking you are still choices.

        Or, if you mean some people choose not to be parents, then yes, absolutely.

        • wellokaythen,
          then everything that happens to us is a result of dozens of decisions we make.

          The father chose implicitly and unconsciously to be a father by trusting birth control (or his partner’s assurance that she has taken her birth is effective).

          The mother who’s physician had neglected to tell her that her oral contraception would not work if she got a stomach flu chose implicitly and unconsciously to be a parent.

          As we progress down this road we’ll arrive at vile statements like this:
          The date-rape victim chose implicitly and unconsciously to be raped by trusting the wrong person.

          Anyway, regardless of whether you think an implicit and unconsciously choice really can be called a choice made by the person my statement still stands. You mention yourself the cases where the mother wasn’t aware that she was pregnant until the birth was ensuing. Here the cut-off date for abortion is 12 weeks (I think it’s similar in the US) so for it to be a choice to abort or not the mother has to discover that she is pregnant before 12 weeks has passed – so a pregnancy hasn’t got to progress as far as the full 9 months before having an abortion or not is no longer a choice. Of course you could argue that not getting an illegal late term backstreet/coathanger abortion is an implicit choice. But hen you would be beyond pale.

          I think my point still stands, which really was: Not all parents chose to be parents still stands.

          Or we could turn this around and tell people that they chose to take a flight despite knowing that there could be noisy kids there – their choice.

          • wellokaythen says:

            I see your point, up to a certain point. Certainly there are cases in which there is complete ignorance or insufficient knowledge or accidents. I have to admit those cases are all too common. I should have avoided absolute pronouncements about reproductive responsibility.

            However, what percentage of children in America are born because of these factors that *seem* to be outside of human control? I suspect in the vast majority of cases, that baby on the plane is not there primarily because of an innocently failed birth control option.

            If these are extremely common cases, then that is a MASSIVELY scandalous bit of news that our society must address immediately, because we’re talking about a massive failure of reproductive responsibility. That calls into question the whole idea of reproductive choice in the first place, if birth seems so out of so many people’s control. I suspect many people have much more control over their reproductive fates than they want to admit. Maybe that’s just my own bias talking, I don’t know.

            There’s a valid difference of opinion about risk assessment, I suppose. There is always a tiny risk of birth control failing, and you’re right about the unfairness of getting pregnant because one did not know that the pill may fail during certain illnesses. In that case, the woman thought the risk was .1% when it was really 1%. At some level, though, there has to be some acceptance that there is always some risk of pregnancy with vaginal intercourse, no matter how small the percentages. (Unless infertility is 100% guaranteed, for example after a hysterectomy.) It’s rolling the dice, massively weighted in your favor, of course, but it’s still a roll of the dice.

            Logically, we can remove adopted kids and IVF kids from this “accidental exception.” People don’t adopt kids on accident and don’t artificially inseminate on accident. Planned children are not here by accident.

            Maybe there’s common ground we could both agree on. We probably both agree that the ideal is for people to have children who have consciously chosen to have them, and minimize the number of accidents or people who feel forced to carry a baby to term. I can get behind that.

            • When I refute a claim that “parents have made their choice” by saying that “not all people choose to be parents” I need only demonstrate the existence of people being parents without it being their choice. I have. I don’t see why I should have to demonstrate the percentage which I in this case find irrelevant.

              And no, we can’t logically remove IVF kods from this “accidental exception”:

              As for adoption:

              Who May Adopt
              Citation: Ann. Stat. § 25.23.020
              The following persons may adopt:
              • A husband and wife together
              • An unmarried adult
              • The unmarried mother or father of the person to be adopted
              • A married person without his or her spouse joining as a petitioner if the person to be adopted is not the spouse,
              and if:

              The spouse is a parent of the person to be adopted and consents to the adoption.

              The petitioner and his or her spouse are legally separated.

              The spouse fails to join in the petition or to agree to the adoption due to prolonged unexplained absence,
              unavailability, incapacity, or circumstances constituting an unreasonable withholding of consent.

              Apparently there are circumstances where a spouse can’t withhold consent for their spouse to adopt, who knew.

  9. I think this is a great idea, most of my worst flight stories involve screaming babies and frazzled parents.

  10. I think it’s a great idea, same as making smoking only cars on trains. It’s a convenience for customers. As a soon-to-be mother, I would hate it if someone had to listen to my kid scream through a whole flight. I certainly have never enjoyed listening to other people’s kids screaming on planes in the past. The person who compared this airline’s new policy to Jim Crow laws and Rosa Parks should be slapped silly – how dispicable to make that comparison! If you brought your child into the quiet zone on the plane, you wouldn’t be beaten, thrown in jail, or become a victim of other such abuses….you would be asked to leave.

  11. As a father of two young girls who (mercifully) been great on planes in the past, I see absolutely no problem with this. Attaching ageism or any other ism that easily categorizes this as something by which to be offended is nothing more than looking for something by which to be offended (see: Rosa Parks argument). It’s reasonable, understandable and applies no extra cost to those who would be affected by the policy.

  12. Hmm… works for me, but it would be nice to see a “kids section” where there are toys galore, TV’s in the back of the seats, a real changing station, quick drink orders for frazzled parents and the like. That’s a section I’d pay a premium for.

  13. I think this is a fine idea. Every time I travel in Europe by train I pick the quiet car. I don’t believe there are age restrictions, but for the most part, the “quiet” part is respected. Plus, it’s not like the whole plane would be sectioned off. Parents with children would still have the run of most of the plane. These are choices being given, not restrictions. Also, what about the business travelers that are suffering jet lag or are depending on the time during the flight for sleep? Don’t they deserve to have an option for that if they are willing to pay for it? And really…all this over seven rows?

  14. I actually think this is a great idea. I have a baby who is five months old and in-laws who live overseas. The last time we flew my baby was perfect, but I spent much of the flight worrying that she was going to act up and ruin the flight for others. I think being in an area with other families would allow me the peace of mind to relax and enjoy the flight.

    I’m a little unsure of how it is discrimination as they have not ban children, just designated a section where if they make a little noise there won’t be heavy sighs all round.

  15. This is fine with me. In fact, I think it’s a good thing. If I were to fly on AirAsia with my baby and he cried or fussed, the rude adults around me would no longer have any reason to be upset–if they didn’t want to take a chance that they’d be sitting near children, they could have paid the extra amount to be in the quiet zone.

  16. My first reaction was honestly, an ageist one. They’re going to let teenagers in the quiet zone? I reacted. Then I thought about it. My kid flew every year, all through his teens, and I know he was not a disruptive passenger, unruly and loud. He had headphones and manners. It’s a stereotype of teens that they lack impulse control to the point that you can reliably sort them this way and that teens are noisy. Teens and their parents should be able to decide whether they want a quiet zone or general pop experience. I am guessing most people want a quiet experience, but that given a chance to fly with other parents of small children, many passengers will opt for a kid zone.

  17. Man, I don’t know about this one. I fully appreciate and sympathize with people who don’t want to be exposed for long periods to loud, rude, messy children. No one should have to go through that who didn’t make the choice to give birth to the little rugrats.

    But on the other hand, I don’t like setting ANY kind of precedent that allows businesses to discriminate against a demographic segment of their customers. Sure, I’m happy that they discriminate against Group X, but what about when they exclude Group Y (which I belong to)?

    • Bob Smith says:

      Discriminate against?
      Are not ALL the rows on the airplane going to the same place? Did the airline say kids can’t fly?
      If the airlines provide 7 rows of kid free zone, does that mean First Class is discriminatory? After all, isn’t that a “special zone” only for “some people”?

      Or are you making it a race issue and reducing you’re entire objection to the logical fallacy of reducto ad absurbum?
      Cause that would be silly. It would also be like you have no merit of an argument if you’d do that.
      So clearly you’re not. So what exactly are you saying then?


  1. […] Crying kids on planes are a nuisance. (What part of air travel isn’t?) Two weeks ago we ran a piece on AirAsia introducing child-free zones on its flights; parents responding to the article were […]

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