January 9, 2013


In journalism, exclamation marks are called screamers. Which gives me an idea for the sign as you enter designated compartments on larger aircraft where passengers accompanied by children would be seated, if I ruled the world.

On every long-haul flight there's a squawker. Maybe a few rows in front, by the bulkhead where the sky-cots fit. But the location matters little. The squawk is harsh and penetrating, cutting through engine noise, movie soundtracks, earplugging and, of course, sleep. The child itself sleeps for short bursts, which never coincide with your own attempts to doze. It's often too young to be distracted for long by rattle or cuddly toy, and it obviously hasn't been drugged to afford its parents and their fellow sufferers any lengthy respite. Over a 13-hour leg of a flight its mother is worn to a shadow of the person who got on the plane. Occasionally she cries: and those around her probably want to. You can't say a word, of course.

On our flight from London to Singapore, one particular child's noise was extraordinary. There was no build-up; just a sudden piercing scream, like young monkeys I've seen on David Attenborough programmes. It wasn't crying; and it didn't gurgle or coo or make da-da-da noises. Just this awful, at times blood-curdling squeal that became stressful soon after takeoff. I kept imagining I could still hear it as I wandered around Changi, hours later. I know its father was an Aussie: please gods don't let them be travelling on to Brisbane.

The advantages of families-only sections would be numerous. Those with slightly older children would find playmates for them. Adults with similarly screeching babies would be deeply sympathetic and supportive. And young adults, the child-free and miserable old gits like me – who has actually been there and done small children on planes years ago but now needs restful transportation halfway across the planet – could suffer the cramped endless flight with one less extreme irritation.

(I have similar ideas for security screening at airports. Only it's men that would be isolated in this case, in men-only queues. Because, you see, we – that is, ladies – usually get our make-up-bag contents into the silly clear plastic bags before we reach the queue: while men only start emptying their pockets of change and keys and phones and boys' stuff as they reach the conveyor belt.)

Once your nerves are in shreds as a result of a screamer, your tolerance of other passengers reaches a new low. First there's the man just across the aisle with bells on his bags. (Presumably so he'll hear them calling if he misplaces them.) There's a bell – and a feather – attached to his backpack which tinkles every time he opens it to get something. And I discover there's another hanging from his larger in-flight case as he takes it in and out of the overhead locker. Behind me is the middle-class family whose 2.4 kids and Dad talk to each other with their headphones on (presumably with games or movies still running) so we can all share in their oh-so-clever excitement.

The beauty of Changi is that it is a relatively peaceful place compared with other international airport terminals. There are soft surfaces, low-volume muzak, no announcements, special loungers to sleep on, a butterfly garden and a fern garden. On our outward journey I was a tad disappointed we only had a three-hour stopover.

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