Children, First Class, disability & who “deserves” to sit where in an airplane

Because I at least try to be a considerate and thoughtful traveler, I regularly look up phrases to suggest “the best way” of doing things. One such example? Parents traveling in First Class whilst their children trail along in steerage a lesser service category.

What I find most fascinating about the search results is the concurrent expression of two opinions that lead inexorably to parent shaming without a solution:

  1. Children don’t belong in First Class unilaterally!, while
  2. Parents who “abandon” their kids in Economy while riding up front themselves are monstrous jerks who should be drawn and quartered (or at least shot.)

Essentially, the sum of those two arguments leads to the conclusion that parents ought never travel in First Class while their children are under age.

Here’s where I’ll swing back around to a point I’ve stressed on this blog before: I often purchase tickets in premium cabins because of my health. Chronic autoimmune illness makes that option more comfortable—but also safer and healthier—for me.

I live with chronic pain.

Every day, I probably ache in at least a few joints. Travel—otherwise one of my great joys—can make my symptoms worse. A larger, more adaptable seat does help. More room, easier access to a lavatory, and the simple comfort of a foot rest or extensible leg support makes the difference between a successful trip and a multi-hour torture chamber.

Note that the acquisition of a more comfortable seat is something I do in addition to taking the most powerful opioid painkillers I’ve got. In transit, I will still suffer more pain than my daily average with these interventions. I choose the world-expanding possibilities of travel in spite of the cost, but the calculus for any given trip can be complex.

If there were legal protections on a minimum amount of space per passenger on a plane, the actionable facts in this argument could be different. If I were guaranteed a seat in Coach that provided enough room to shift position and freedom from being kicked and elbowed by even a plus-sized seat mate, I’d be open to debating the courtesies of keeping younger travelers out of the pointy end of the plane.

Since that is a pipe dream, however, the traveling public is going to have to tolerate my presence in Premium Economy and better, when I can afford it. And, where I go, there also will travel my children when I deem it desirable that they join me.

Given these facts, which option is preferable to the segment of society that objects to children in First Class and kids seated away from their folks?

My own choice is usually dictated by my finances.

When I score an awesome cheap fare up front, I typically book my little guy (middle school aged, so not so terribly tiny) in the seat next to me. He is delighted by the idea of a luxury trip, though modern domestic First Class is a far cry from gold-plated splendor. I prefer having his company to sitting alone.

Then again, I do actively discourage any sense of entitlement to this, my more peer-influenceable child. He has also known the joys of sleeping in a cramped Economy seat on a too-long/too-short transatlantic flight, and he knows full well how to wait his turn in the interminable queue to board, settle quickly into his seat and stow his own carry on, and then keep himself to himself en route to make the uncomfortable as tolerable as possible for everyone else aboard the jet.

The older teen would rather sit on his own regardless because he’s way too cool to be seen with me, so he’s stowed in steerage unless a really high Coach fare is actually a poor value compared with the mileage earning and family togetherness opportunities of a bargain up front.

Don’t gasp–it does happen! Leisure travelers who covet rock bottom fares and business travelers whose companies pay top dollar tend to prefer flights on different days and times.

Always check fares in all classes before booking! You may find First Class for less than Coach. It’s rare, but I have seen it* myself.

This summer, I’m accompanying my husband to a conference in the UK and we’re bringing the little guy along. On the way out, his ticket, purchased with frequent flier miles, is in Comfort+ (i.e., Premium Economy) while his father will be four rows ahead but behind the magic curtain in Delta One.

My own flight, also bought with miles, will be on a different date, itinerary, and airline entirely. We don’t have that many miles on any given airline at one time. Also, I often depart ahead of time to allow a day (or more) of recovery before entering full “tourist mode” and because I enjoy travel so much more than DH does. He rarely takes even a single day off concurrent with his business trips.

It’s a transatlantic redeye, so the kid is expected to sit, settle, and sleep. His “solo” presence is unlikely be a bother to anyone at all under these circumstances, even offering his adjacent seatmate a bit more space due to his small stature. Purchasing the equivalent to his dad’s company-paid Business Class seat was simply out of our reach.

To be clear: I, personally, am not talking about abandoning a toddler 40 rows back from his responsible adult companion. Perhaps non-parents need to be told, too, that there is no single age when every child will be ready to sit alone. As with staying home alone without direct supervision, I’d judge the right age to be over six years at a minimum and by the age of 13 for almost everyone.

Our return to the US presents a completely different set of circumstances. The lo-o-o-ong nonstop flight from Ireland to the Pacific Northwest should see the boy wide awake and therefore more likely to want or need something from a parent, if only to ask if my usual strict limit of one sweet drink per flight could be adjusted, “just this once.” I also found a relatively low fare in a premium cabin whereas Economy on the direct flight I wanted was rather high. In this scenario, I’m opting to pay to seat my child up front next to me.

It’s been argued that children don’t appreciate the “best parts” of the premium cabin experience. For many travelers, that appears to be getting drunk! True, my son won’t be sipping champagne, and he isn’t overly inconvenienced by the cramped conditions in the cheapest seats so the extra room is “wasted” on him.

Both of us will enjoy easier access to the lavatory, however, and the better service offered by less harried flight attendants. My younger son is outgoing and friendly; he will appreciate plenty about traveling with a more gracious level of service. The fact that different elements of Business Class will tickle his pre-teen fancy doesn’t make his experience count for less.

Where will my teen be during this jaunt? Well, he would rather fly alone to visit his grandparents sooner and leave the UK to the rest of us. Somehow, I’ve produced offspring that aren’t as interested in foreign travel as I am. After a bit of practice sitting in Coach 20 rows behind me, he graduated to a solo flight with Unaccompanied Minor service around age 12. Now, though still in high school and underage, he’s old enough to manage his own passage through the security gauntlet and onto a direct flight without paying for the airline’s hand-holding.

My solo teen might also annoy those who like to complain, but he’s not an intrusive passenger with his slim build and quiet habits. On his last trip to visit Grandma, he texted me joyfully upon landing from his ultra cheap middle seat that the guy by the window didn’t need to pee even once. Never having to get up once makes a great flight by his metrics.

Glasses of wine and water on airplane tray tableFeel free to compare that behavior to the tipsy adult who spills his third drink all over you and your laptop. The guy may offer to pay for your dry cleaning, but you’ll be wearing stained and sticky pants for the next half a day regardless.

*This actually seems to be most likely around holidays when families travel to be together. What a great way to treat yourself if clan gatherings are a source of great stress as well as joy for you.

If there were a way to get him booked into a hotel without an adult in the event of delays or flight cancellations, I would trust him to make connections, too. The boy is downright competent!

Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!