An Airplane Horror Story

Written by Anya Sostek on .


We thought we've had bad experiences flying with kids. This is worse. Devorah Pasternak, of Akron, Ohio, sent us a copy of her letter to AirTran about her experience flying from Pittsburgh -- or rather, not flying. She and her 2-year-old twins got kicked off the plane when one twin wouldn't stay seated in her own seat. AirTran's response is after the letter...

Dear AirTran Airways, Customer Relations:

I am writing to inform you of my experience onboard Flight 471 (nonstop from Pittsburgh to Ft. Lauderdale). This flight was to be my first time flying with my twin daughters, Tirtzah and Rivka, who turned two years old in January. I was five months pregnant at the time and did much to prepare to fly with my girls for the first time, including several calls and/or e-mails to AirTran re: regulations, documentation, baby snacks, car seats and other miscellaneous questions. I booked three full priced tickets, given that my girls would be 2 years old, and I was told car seats were optional.

When the morning of our big trip arrived, we boarded the flight without incident. I put Tirtzah next to the window, Rivka on the aisle seat, and I set up shop between them. Within moments of buckling the girls in, Tirtzah stood straight up on the seat (out of the seatbelt) because the seatbelt was too large to restrain her. Both girls were well-behaved, taking in their surroundings, waving at passengers and enjoying lollipops.

The plane began to move toward takeoff and at this point I tried to get Tirtzah to sit down in her seat with the seatbelt. She grew increasingly agitated and started crying. She refused to sit down and kept standing up out of the seatbelt. I tried to tighten the seatbelt as best I could, but it was completely ineffective: the seatbelt would not adjust small enough for Tirtzah’s little body, and there was so much space to the sides of her hips that she only had to stand up to get out of it.

I have no clue what was upsetting her so much, but the more I tried to get her to sit down, the more agitated Tirtzah became. Each time I tried to get her to sit down, she’d pop right up and instead plopped right down on my lap, which instantly calmed her and she stopped crying.

Meanwhile, the stewardess came by and began threatening to return to the gate if I couldn’t get Tirtzah to sit on her own in the seatbelt. I asked if Tirtzah could sit on my lap, but the stewardess was adamant that they could be fined by the FAA unless Tirtzah sat on her own, in her chair, with the seatbelt.

This was the first that I had ever heard of a requirement that a 2-year-old sit on her own on a plane. Frankly, I always believed that you had to buy plane tickets for a 2-year-old because it was an arbitrary age at which airlines wanted more money from passengers. I never would have imagined that either of my girls would not be permitted on my lap, given their young age, small stature, and cognitive immaturity.

Throughout this ordeal I did my best to remain calm. I did not want to aggravate the situation by my girls seeing me stressed, crying or yelling. Even so, AirTran staff’s absurd and illogical treatment of my family was hard to bear. The stewardess insisted that requiring Tirtzah to sit in the seat unassisted with a seatbelt around her waist was "for her own safety." I explained to her that the seatbelt was too big and did nothing to secure her in her seat. (This was perhaps the only time the stewardess did not know how to respond.) How can a seatbelt on a 2-year-old that cannot properly restrain that 2-year-old effectuate that child’s safety? And if the airline is aware that plane seatbelts do not adjust for toddlers, yet the airline requires the toddler to strap in "for her own safety," then if the true intent is the child’s safety, why wouldn’t car seats be required from the beginning?

As previously mentioned, Tirtzah got more and more agitated every time I tried to get her to sit on her own. She was a baby who wanted her momma. She repeatedly stood up and then plopped down on my lap, instantly calming herself.

Once Tirtzah calmed, I tried distracting her with coloring, lollipops – pretty much anything – so I could slide her off my lap and onto the seat. Sadly, Tirtzah would not be outwitted and the cycle would begin again. Finally, I managed to scoot as far next to her seat as possible (given my seatbelt situation), I got the seatbelt completely around Tirtzah’s waist, and I partially scooted Tirtzah off my lap so that her legs were resting on my leg but her bottom was on her own seat. She was calm. To this, the stewardess replied: "that’s not good enough." The plane was returned to the gate and my girls and I were kicked off.

Rivka, in the meantime, had been fine, enjoying her lollipop and schmoozing (as much as a 2 year old does) with a very kind gentleman across the aisle from her. Neither of my girls understood why we were leaving. As we exited the plane, Rivka waved at the other passengers while Tirtzah sweetly chanted, "bye-bye…bye-bye…" I managed to hold it together as much as possible and reframed from crying until after exiting the plane.

This was meant to be a very special trip for our family. It was the girls’ first real adventure – flying on a plane, first time seeing palm trees and the beach, and our first family "getaway." My husband was waiting to meet us at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. The trip had been planned over 6 months ago around a very special family occasion. My family is spread over the country and the girls don’t get to see them often. Words cannot describe the heartache, devastation and distress I felt as I exited the plane that day.

I was offered the next flight to Ft. Lauderdale (with a stopover in Atlanta) the next day. In the meantime, we would have to drive two hours to our home in Akron, Ohio, to return the next morning, leaving by 2:30 or 3:00 am to make the 6:10 am flight. Naturally, if I were to attempt the next flight with my girls I would bring their car seats. I had no clue of these kinds of restrictions on my 2-year-olds, and it killed me inside thinking that their car seats were in our car in the airport parking lot this whole time! Yet, this alternate flight promised a new logistical nightmare: a layover in Atlanta where I would be one adult (without assistance) lugging twin 2-year-olds in a double stroller, a diaper bag, two tote bags (with activities and snacks for the girls) and two car seats. It was a physical impossibility for any normal adult (even if I hadn’t been 5 months pregnant). In comparison, my in-laws received gate passes to help me maneuver everyone and everything through the airport in Pittsburgh. In Atlanta, I knew no one and would have to manage everything on my own from one flight to the next. (All good reasons why I paid more for a nonstop flight to begin with.)

AirTran staff indicated someone would put the car seats on the plane for me in Pittsburgh. To my inquiry requesting assistance for my family to get from Point A to Point B in Atlanta, I was told: "They are not required to help you, Ma’am." I replied that I know no one was "required" to help me, but would there be a human being in Atlanta willing to help me out given the situation? To which I received a blank stare and told again "they are not required to help you."

As airline passengers nowadays, we are charged everywhere for every little thing: food on the plane, checked luggage, a bottle of water. I literally paid extra money per seat to pick seats on the plane so that I could sit next to my own babies! Yet, when it comes to a service that a customer desperately needs (such as in my situation) you haven’t even thought to provide such a service, even if at a cost?

Needless to say, a flight with a transfer in Atlanta was quickly becoming a physical impossibility. Over the next several hours, we drove home to Akron. My husband (who was already in Florida awaiting our arrival) and I had to make some tough choices. It was a heart wrenching decision, but in the end, Atlanta posed too many risks for me to manage on my own. Tirtzah and Rivka would remain with their grandparents while I travelled alone to meet up with my husband and extended family in Ft. Lauderdale. (It was not until I transferred in Atlanta that I observed how close together the AirTran gates were, and wondered whether the girls could have made it after all.)

Looking back now, AirTran staff in Pittsburgh clearly didn’t care about my family reaching its destination. No one offered any information regarding the airport in Atlanta or any alternate solutions.

I inform you of my experience so that even if you don’t feel ashamed, at the very least, you should feel embarrassed by your business policies and staff practices toward your passengers. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate your rules and regulations, and how you choose to educate the public. If you persist in your requirement that a child barely 2 years old must sit unassisted in their own seat with a seatbelt, "for that child’s safety," then AirTran must accept the consequences of such a position. AirTran must provide seatbelts that adjust to fit such small bodies. Alternatively, AirTran must admit to parents that AirTran will not provide for the child’s safety, and therefore parents are required to bring car seats on the plane. These are the logical consequences of your position.

AirTran must decide: was Baby Tirtzah’s safety really your concern, or if her "safety" was just an excuse? If safety is a real concern, then real action is required.


Devorah M. Pasternak

After the PlayGround blog contacted AirTran about the letter, a spokeswoman wrote us back to say this:

"We spoke with the Customer today. We refunded her for her flight and explained that all customers are required to be seated with their seatbelts on for takeoff and this includes children."

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