The Strangest Thing Happened to Me on My First Flight Post-Pandemic

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n acquaintance of mine once gave me a very strange nugget of travel advice: don’t bother dressing your baby as comfy as you’d assume for the first flight they take. Their logic was simple: you’re not dressing the baby up for their comfort, or even your own–you’re dressing that baby up for the rest of the people on the plane. 

Excuse me?

Believe it, my associate intoned, the most important thing is that the baby has got to look cute. Forget the footie pajamas and bust out the most formal, ridiculous, show-stopping outfit that baby owns and dress to fly in that. After all, it’s much harder for your fellow passengers to resent a ridiculously adorable baby in a bowtie or a tutu. 

Like anyone who flies regularly, I’ve felt the ripple of annoyance and seen the eye rolls of flyers who can’t stand to be on a plane with children–especially babies. As a person who works in the travel industry, I’ve heard the gripes, I’ve read the comments. Perhaps the only flight passengers more loathed than babies are the drunk and disorderly. Japan Airlines created a booking tool so prospective flyers can buy seats far away from tot travelers. There are myriad forums on how to deal with, or better yet, avoid rambunctious youngsters, and debates about whether kids should even be allowed on planes. Fodor’s has explored parental survival advice, ways to mitigate the torture, and considerations for flying children in premium classes. Babies, given their ear-piercing capabilities and inability to move much, make them particularly trying airplane companions to caretakers and strangers alike. It’s not their fault, but it doesn’t make many want to sit near them in an uncomfortable and boring tin can soaring through the sky. 

So yeah, I was terrified to take a flight with my daughter, who is perfect, yes, but otherwise a toddler. A complicated first pregnancy and birth that culminated in a worldwide pandemic had kept me grounded for almost a year and a half, and this would be her first experience on an airplane, and my first as a parent. As pandemic restrictions eased in the US, I booked a trip and mentally prepared. As the date approached, I wasn’t gaining any confidence. Would I still be the fastest person in the TSA screening line? (Absolutely not.) Would I still look polished and professional from check-in to landing? (Not a chance.) Could I still fit weeks’ worth of outfits into a carry-on? (Ha HAAA.) What would it be like to go from someone who travels professionally for a living to a total newbie–a first-time traveler as a mom? 

Initially Remarkable Things

Something strange happened as I arrived for departure. After I was abandoned by dropped off by my husband in order to go find parking, I corralled baby girl and our stuff toward our airline desk. Out from behind the check-in desk popped a friendly gate agent, reaching out to assist me at the self-check-in kiosk. (“You’ve got a lot going on here,” she said as she breezed through the touchscreen for me.) Friendly and supportive, she offered extra reassurance about how and when we could board, and bonus tips on dropping and collecting gate-checked items like the stroller. Maybe everyone is just really excited to see people traveling again, I thought without much regard. After all, customer service agents are meant to be considerate, right? But that doesn’t explain why the representative (and the luggage handler!) specifically acknowledged my toddler, that and commended me on my preparedness, and still had insider guidance to pass along. Nothing remarkable there, right?

The positive energy followed me to security, where my nerves really ramped up. With baby girl came her baby baggage–stroller, car seat, diaper bag, milk over 3 ounces. The intimidating thought of having to manage her security screening as well as my own had me visualizing it for days beforehand, mentally preparing to hold up the line, endure additional screenings, and generally taking more time than my usual breezy pass through. I was so focused on making sure to declare the milk that I completely forgot to remove my computer from my carry-on. With a baby on one hip, I had to find and separate the item with my only free hand, then redo my entire screening. (Oh, how far we fall.) My worst fears were being realized: I was the passenger bottlenecking the line. And how long was this going to take? But before I had a chance to get frazzled, an extra TSA agent stepped in to bump my stuff to the front of the line, screen the milk out of the way of hurried passengers, and help me gather my many, many stuffs. To my surprise and relief, security took barely longer than pre-baby. Our family walked toward the gate feeling grateful and relieved–and that was something new. 

A Truly Remarkable Thing

There’s an emerging trend around baby showers or other well-wishing parties that encourage guests to consider the parents and not just the baby as deserving recognition in the pregnancy. Never have I seen this more in practice than with the flight attendants who worked our flight, who were keen to check in on what we, the parents, needed in order to best make our baby comfortable. Their kindness also felt example-setting for any would-be haters around us. By making the point that we were welcome and empathetic to potentially rough flying conditions, it made sure that everyone in earshot knew who the flight attendants intended to support. All this extra kindness while providing us comfortable service–and the whole keeping us safe in case of an emergency thing as well. Too young for her first set of wing pins, a flight attendant offered my baby a conciliatory first wing sticker, which was promptly shown off to seatmates both behind and in front of us. 

About the people behind and in front of us. I was shocked by how many people went out of their way to interact with my baby, or tell me how cute she is, or regale their story of their own baby’s first flight. Other flyers gladly offered to share toys and snacks and did what they could to interact sanitarily. Most passengers took it in major stride when baby girl toddled up and down and up and down and up and down the aisle, even as I wrung my hands behind her and apologized as many times as I ran laps. 

As someone who rarely makes eye contact in the airport on an airplane–I’ve even written previously about how to stop conversations with seatmates–the plane ride was where I observed the most jarring of expectations. Knowing full well I would have been driving my pre-mom self bonkers, I couldn’t believe the gracious and considerate response from my fellow passengers. Even if they hated baby girl and me all the way to baggage claim, they kept it to themselves.

The Most Remarkable Thing of All 

But the glow didn’t wear off on my departure flight. The return flight (the one where my child was less thrilled than previously) was even better, since now I wasn’t afraid to make eye contact with my rowmates, and they were more than willing to connect. Is it possible that flying with a baby was actually more pleasant than without?! (No.) But I’ve rearranged my expectations of what a nightmare flight really feels like. 

I’m still really new at this, so I can’t say if the remarkableness will last. Maybe it’s just that as we get back to travel, everyone is thrilled to be on the journey again. Maybe returning to the public after a year of isolation has made us kinder to each other, more patient. Maybe everyone on my flight loved kids. Or maybe as a first-time flying mom, I have a new perspective on who the crankiest baby on board really is

Or maybe it was because my daughter was dressed in her most formal, ridiculous, show-stopping outfit. Gotta cover your bases!

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