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Flying with kids? Avoid turbulence when possible

Surely they could spare a little milk, right?

But when John and Mary Rose Lin of Jersey City, N.J., ran out of milk for their twins on a recent Continental flight from Newark to Maui, the flight attendant refused to give them more. That particular beverage, the Lins recall being told, was for coffee, not children. "I was not asking for a full bottle, just a cup," said Mary Rose Lin, noting she even offered to pay for the milk.

It was the low point of an otherwise arduous 12-hour trip. "Not a lot of people sympathize with your situation," Lin said. "If you feel like someone is going to help you, chances are no one will."

The misery of air travel is no surprise to anyone who has boarded a domestic flight in the past five years. As airlines have maximized capacity and slashed services, passengers have learned to brace themselves for packed planes, stuffed overhead bins, harried flight attendants and fees.

For families, however, the costs and inconveniences are compounded. At a time when resorts, cruise lines and tour operators are courting junior guests as if they were VIPs, flying with children has become an increasingly costly, Survivor-like experience. Baggage fees? Start multiplying. Early boarding? Probably not. Hoping to sit together? Don't count on it (unless you've paid extra). A few empty seats where a child can spread out and nap? Good luck!

It wasn't always like this, of course. In the golden age of flying in the 1960s and '70s families could expect to be the first ones on the plane. They would then be greeted by smiling flight attendants bearing miniature pilot wings for children who would be treated to a tour of the cockpit. Even as recently as a few years ago families could count on a handful of common courtesies, like boarding before other passengers and being able to get milk onboard.

"We used to carry five to six cartons of milk on each flight for coach," said Elaine Sweeney, 58, a flight attendant with American for more than 30 years. Now, she said, after 9 a.m. there is no milk in coach on her flights — just two pint-sized cartons in first class, where cookies are served. To traveling families, the erosion of such niceties is just an indirect way of suggesting they take the bus.

Not so, counter the airlines, it's a matter of resources. U.S. carriers have lost about $55 billion in the past decade, according to the Air Transport Association, as operational costs have outpaced revenues. Making up for those losses has meant cutting benefits and adding fees for everyone.

And while we may miss the golden days of air travel, flights cost less now than they did then. Adjusting for inflation, the average round-trip domestic fare in 1979 was $559.31; last year it was $316.31. For families, in particular, that is a meaningful difference. More than anything else, said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group International, an aviation consultancy, "families generally travel based on price."

Given the current economic climate and families' desire for cheap flights, Boyd doesn't expect things to improve soon. At best, he said, airlines "treat families like everybody else."

"If you get a good flight attendant they might help you warm the bottle," he continued. "Other than that you're on your own."

So for anyone planning to brave the indifferent skies with children this season, here are some tips.

Be seated

Planes are flying mostly full thanks to major capacity cuts. For families this means it is increasingly hard to get seats together.

Families should book as early as possible. If you cannot find seats together, call the airline and ask an agent to make a note on your reservation indicating which family members are minors, recommends Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, based in San Francisco.

If nothing comes of that, check back with the airline one to three days before departure, when seats for customers with disabilities are often released.

Come prepared

No one should be surprised at having to take food (or pay for it), in addition to basic supplies, but some families, like the Lins, are startled to learn what isn't available.

Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for Continental, the airline the Lins were flying, said the family's experience wasn't typical, and that the airline offers a "variety of complimentary beverages on all of our flights, but occasionally a specific selection may not be available due to customer demand."

Families aren't the only ones affected by the new austerity. Flight attendants, too, miss the days when they could give people pretty much what they needed. Beth Donnelly, a veteran flight attendant with American Airlines who began her career in 1977 on Braniff International Airways, says that today "it's hurry, hurry, hurry. Poor people, now if you don't bring it, we don't have it."

Even when airlines offer food, often the thing you want is sold out. To ensure that your family has what it needs, take it yourself.

Consider buying perishables like milk postsecurity and asking a flight attendant to put them on ice. Or bring something like Parmalat or low-fat milk boxes which can be stored at room temperature until opened.

Also keep in mind that baby formula and food, breast milk and juice are allowed "in reasonable quantities."

.fast facts

Is your airline child-friendly?

Here's a look at what families can expect from a range of American carriers on domestic flights.

American

Preboarding: No.

Kids meals: Sells a number of "kid-friendly choices" like $10 turkey sandwiches with chips.

Entertainment: Free child-friendly movies on overhead televisions on most flights longer than four hours.

Delta

Preboarding: Yes (no age limit), ahead of first and business class.

Kids meals: $4.50 "Kids PB&J plate" served with fruit/veggies.

Entertainment: On flights with seatback TVs, Delta offers 16 On Demand children's television programs that cost $1 per episode or $6 for a television bundle. (Flights without seatback screens may not offer children's movies at all.)

Southwest

Preboarding: Yes, for families with children up to 4 years old, after passengers in boarding group A, which includes elite fliers, full-fare passengers and those who pay $10 (each way) for early-bird check-in.

Kids meals: No meals. Peanuts and pretzels are free.

Entertainment: Coloring books.

United-Continental

Preboarding: Yes, for families with children 4 years and younger, after passengers who paid extra for priority boarding on United, which merged with Continental last fall.

Kids meals: Snacks and meals, including $7.49 cheese and fruit plates, are offered, depending on length of flight and time of day.

Entertainment: Most of United's fleet has overhead screens that show in-flight movies. Continental offers satellite TV on more than 75 percent of its 737 Next Generation aircraft and plans to install the service on more planes in 2012.

US Airways

Preboarding: Yes, for families with children 4 and younger.

Kids meals: Snack boxes ($6) and meals including fruit and cheese plates ($8), depending on length of flight and time of day.

Entertainment: Nothing on domestic flights.

Flying with kids? Avoid turbulence when possible 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 3:30am]
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