Weighing in on the #UnitedWithIvy case

The Kirschenbaums (pic from GMA)

The Kirschenbaums (pic from GMA)

By now you’ve probably heard about the brouhaha last week over the Kirschenbaum family’s ill-fated family trip on a United Airlines flight from Costa Rica to New Jersey.

The family’s mother, Elit Kirschenbaum, went off on United after a flight attendant refused to let her hold her disabled 3-year-old daughter on her lap during take-off. Turns out the daughter, Ivy, has one of the worst forms of cerebral palsy—a kind that prevents the child from sitting up by herself. Momma Bear tried to turn the incident into some sort of discrimination case, and went to Facebook, Twitter and morning TV shows with a smear campaign.

The only problem: Momma was in the wrong.

As Hallie Levine pointed out in a recent post for Yahoo! Travel, FAA regulations require all children over the age of two to be able to sit in their own seats for take-off and landing. The Kirschenbaums actually HAD a seat on the plane for little Ivy. If she wasn’t able to sit in it on her own, the family simply should have brought along an FAA-approved car seat (which is what most airlines and the FAA recommend).

Look, there are plenty of other issues in this episode (for a relatively unbiased account of the facts, read this). Like why Elit Kirschenbaum and her husband had two tickets in first class and four tickets for their kids back in economy (and, um, who the heck was gonna sit with the kids in steerage). And why the airline allowed the parents to argue with flight attendants for a full hour before resolving the situation (the argument and subsequent delay forced many of the other passengers on board to miss their connections).

One even could assail the flight attendant herself for perhaps coming on too strong. Of course it also is understandable to ask why the family didn’t seek some sort of compromise before raising the stink—some reports I’ve read indicated they could have brought a wheelchair for the child, and that the airline would have been required to accommodate it because the flight had more than 60 seats.

(Ultimately, the pilot had Ivy lie belted across her father’s lap for the duration of the flight.)

Still, the fact remains: The Kirschenbaums should have been traveling with an FAA-approved seat, and the fact that they were not lies squarely WITH THEM.

It’s easy in situations like this one for families to cry foul, blame the airline, and demand sympathy. Heck, I’m usually the first guy to stand up and support the family traveler—especially when that traveler has the added challenge of traveling with a special needs child. But airline industry rules exist for a reason, and if some of us have to follow them, all of us should. The Kirschenbaum case reminds all of us that just because we’re traveling with children doesn’t mean we’re always right. Remember that the next time you fly with kids. I know I will.

To what extent do you think Elit Kirschenbaum was in the right?

Family travel rights in the sky, part 1

We should see this together.

We should see this together.

Our flight back to SFO from Walt Disney World Resort (well, really from MCO) earlier this month was one of the worst family travel experiences in recent memory. I had checked our seat assignments hours before our 9 a.m. departure and the four of us were sitting together—L with me in one row, R with Powerwoman in the row behind.

Then, 90 minutes before our scheduled take-off, the airline split us up, and put R by herself.

Normally something like this would just be an inconvenience. But in the case of our family, it was a REALLY BIG DEAL. Because R is 2.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in. About 90 minutes before we were scheduled to take-off for a 5.5-hour flight back home, United Airlines split up our family and sat the 2-year-old passenger all by her lonesome.

You can imagine my shock when I saw the change. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than the last few weeks, you probably also can picture the outrage. Normally in these types of situations I go all “Johnny Brooklyn” and curse and wail and rant and rave and speak so excitedly little bits of spittle come flying out of my mouth.

This time, however, especially because the kids were RIGHT THERE, I kept my cool, and repeatedly (and respectfully!) requested that the flight attendants put my family back together.

In the end, to the airline’s credit, they managed to get us back to 2-and-2. They didn’t solve the problem until ten minutes before takeoff, but, technically—and to be totally fair—they did ultimately solve the problem.

Still, the entire debacle got me wondering what our rights as family travelers really are.

So I started digging. And I started making phone calls. And I started talking to experts. The reporting effort is still ongoing, but I wanted to report the first part of my findings ASAP. So here goes:

  • Currently there is no federal regulation requiring airlines to keep together families with confirmed seats. I thought for sure the FAA would regulate this. I was wrong; that agency only oversees family travel issues as they pertain to child safety seats. The folks at the Department of Transportation have some guidelines for airlines to follow about the ages of unaccompanied minors, but there is no formal law on the books that they enforce either.
  • In this vacuum of legislation, airlines establish and enforce their own policies about keeping together families. These policies vary widely.
  • United’s formal policy on the subject indicates that the airline will do whatever it can to keep families together. At the same time, the airline has a policy that stipulates no children under the age of 5 are allowed to travel unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. When I pressed a spokesperson to explain how separating a 2-year-old from her family would NOT be in violation of the unaccompanied minor rule, he suggested that because our daughter was ticketed with us, technically this was not a violation of the policy.

Obviously there is much more research to be done. Once I have spoken with every major airline and every major industry organization, I’ll compile my findings into an easy-to-read post. I may also put together an infographic or chart that helps explain these disparate policies.

So far, at this point in my reporting, I know this:  There’s nobody at the national level looking out for us family travelers, and we have very limited recourse when we feel we’ve been wronged.

Personally, I think that needs to change. Quickly. And forever. What’s your take?

Non-Tech Options to Pass a Long Flight

R's window after 10.5 hours in the air.

R’s window after 10.5 hours in the air.

We’ve been home in the U.S. now for almost two weeks, and we’re just about settled back into the swing of things. We’re (almost) all unpacked. The kids have (just about) gotten over their jet lag. The lot of us has rediscovered our love for the true American pastime: Driving cars.

All of this has helped Powerwoman and I glean some healthy perspective on the logistics of our return. In particular, we can’t believe how easy the flight home really was.

Allow me to reiterate: The flight home was 10.5 hours. And our kids rocked it like pros.

Before I share the secrets to our success, it’s worth noting that we are not raising our children to be technology addicts. Yes, we allowed them to watch a few shows on their Kindle Fire devices over the course of the trip home. But this screen time was by far the exception instead of the norm; generally speaking, we used “Doc McStuffins” and “Peppa Pig” as rewards for good behavior at other times on the flight.

For the most part, our strategy comprised three tenets: Arts-and-crafts, story time and geography.

The arts-and-crafts was a no-brainer; both girls exhibited a true passion for creativity during our time in London, so Powerwoman and I made provisions to indulge this interest on the plane. We started with stickerbooks. We moved on to basic coloring (I pre-packaged two Ziploc bags with crayons and markers for each of them so they wouldn’t fight).

At cruising altitude, I broke out the window clings and let each girl decorate her window (we were sitting window-middle, window-middle in two consecutive rows; an intentional effort to divide and conquer).

Later in the flight, when R took the first of her two brief naps, L and I made paper-chain necklaces for each of the flight attendants—gifts that scored us free wing pins, free drinks (Scotch for Dad; milk for daughter) and enough special treatment to make the Big Girl feel like a VIP.

We interspersed art time with story time. This didn’t only comprise books on those aforementioned Kindles; Powerwoman and I took turns telling stories and encouraging both girls to make up their own. Some of this make-your-own-story play was open-ended; we also mined ideas from Rory’s Story Cubes, a product about which I blogged last fall.

Finally, we passed time on our LHR-SFO flight with interactive geography lessons. Using the real-time map feature on the seatback television screens, we prompted the girls to describe what they saw out the window and match it up to where we were in the arc of our flight.

Through this method, L learned once and for all that Greenland isn’t green, and that Nunavut (one of her favorite words to say) is covered in snow. R was able to distinguish mountains from plains.

Looking back on the flight, perhaps the only hiccup was that L didn’t actually nap until about three minutes before we disembarked. With all of these fun activities to keep her occupied in mid-air, perhaps that partially was our fault.

What are your secrets for surviving a long flight when traveling with young kids?

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