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How Airlines Are Making Traveling with Young Children Even More Difficult

03/05/2016 11:08 | Updated 05 May 2016

Traveling long haul with young children is a special sort of pain.

Yes, you're lucky enough to be going on a vacation and far enough away that your destination promises to be an exotic twist to your daily life. But after five or six hours on a plane with young kids you're likely to need a drip feed of holiday cocktails to settle your nerves.

In the beginning traveling with a small baby is not as bad as it sounds. There's crying and screaming, but your baby is also super cute, and the cooing from besotted passengers will offset some of the dirty looks. If your baby is not yet on solids their food supply is either on tap or only needs hot water added and you're ready to go. The absolute bonus, I assume designed to encourage reproduction, is that you get a bassinet seat. It's somewhere for your baby to sleep that isn't on your lap while you can kick back with all that extra legroom in the bulkhead row. This is as good as it sounds, except for the one time I flew an US airline and was given--I kid you not--a cardboard box lined with airplane pillows for my baby to sleep in. She looked like an abandoned puppy.

Once children are mobile, things start to get horribly real. That's when you'll see mom or dad wearily making laps up and down the aisle as little Sammy plays a game of tag with sleeping passengers. The black listed period of travel is after they start to crawl and before they turn two and you have to pay for a child's seat. This is when the greatest gift you can receive is finding an empty seat next to you. Or when household fights about whether to pay for that extra seat can escalate into the entire holiday being called into question- and for good reason. A 12-hour flight with a 20 month old squirming in your lap can make you question all your reproductive (and marital) choices. My advice: If you have a child who's mobile and hasn't yet turned two, all holidays should be a comfortable drive, train trip or ferry away. Or get some sand in your living room, crank up the heating and stick an umbrella in your cocktail. You will emerge less traumatized.

There is a golden age though, and once your child is old enough to be entertained by the inflight entertainment system, you have arrived. From around two or three years old they can spend most of the flight captivated by the Disney channel. Once they have worked out how to navigate the remote control by themselves, it's time to order those drinks and peanuts and recline your seat for an (possibly) uninterrupted movie.

Except the airlines are trying to sabotage it for you.

Yep, the worst thing that has happened to me while flying was not the airline pretending a cardboard box was an actual bed for an actual baby. The worst thing is what the airlines try to pass off as children's food.

Unidentifiable meat products and pureed vegetables is par for the course when it comes to all airline meals, so I'll let that go. My issue is that kids' 'meals' are a serve of this mush surrounded by the contents of the junk food aisle at the local supermarket. On our most recent flight, the children's meal option for lunch was mush served with a juice box, an iced cupcake and TWO chocolate bars. They then mixed it up for dinner when the mush was accompanied by a tray of potato chips, cookies, a juice box and a chocolate bar.

What are the airlines thinking?

Obviously the kids think this is brilliant. Not only are they binge watching the entire catalogue of the children's channel, but it's accompanied by a non-stop smorgasbord of all the food mom won't let them eat unless they're at an actual party. For parents it means deftly intercepting the tray as it's being put down, swiping as many offending items before the kids realize what's going on, and then supplementing the meal with actual food that has been brought from home.

Ask a cross section of airline passengers what they dislike most about long haul flights and hyperactive children will undoubtedly rank high. So what do the airlines do? Put a few hundred adults and children into confined quarters for long stretches of time and pump those children full of sugar throughout the trip.

To add insult to injury, those same flight attendants who served your kids the sugar bomb then join in the chorus of dirty looks and tut tutting as Sammy ricochets through the cabin like a pinball in a machine bursting with quarters.

It's not complicated. I know there are tight budgets and that removing a solitary olive from first class salads was once enough to save an airline $40,000 a year. But kids are not hard to feed and it doesn't have to be fancy: Sandwiches, cut up fruit, vegetable sticks, dips, cheese and crackers, Greek yogurt. That's a kids' meal.

The parents will thank you, the kids won't notice and the rest of the passengers will breathe a sigh of relief.

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