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Originally published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 7:08 PM

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Travel Wise | Child-free zones created by some airlines

Carriers are trying to balance the needs of families with those of customers who want a peaceful trip.

Bloomberg News

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Andy Curr says her worst ever in-flight experience was brought on her by her own children.

Curr, an Australian Web designer, was traveling from London to Bangkok about three years ago when her second-youngest daughter, then 20 months, “screamed all the way,” she said. The wailing got her older children going, too.

“Once one goes off, they all start,” said Curr, 41.

Balancing the needs of customers wanting a peaceful trip with those of harried parents has become a major challenge for airlines trying to cater to both groups. Singapore Airlines’ budget carrier Scoot has unveiled a child-free zone for passengers prepared to pay extra, following AirAsia X and Malaysia Airlines, who also segregate kids.

Seat-kicking and unruly children came ahead of drunken passengers, rude cabin crew, and lecherous neighbors as on-board annoyances in a July survey by the British website Gocompare. Respondents said they’d be prepared to add 50 pounds ($78.6) to the cost of a return flight if they could sit in childfree zones.

“People love their own kids, but they might not necessarily love someone else’s to the same extent,” said Campbell Wilson, CEO of Scoot. “Allowing someone the option of traveling with the assurance of not having young children around is simply one of the many choices you have.”

Scoot charges an extra $14.95 for 41 economy-class seats directly behind business class, with 3 inches of extra legroom and no children under 12 allowed.

There was “some very robust debate” in the office about the merits of the service, said Wilson, who doesn’t have children. Several colleagues who are parents favored a play area instead, he said.

Carriers who’ve introduced child-free zones say they haven’t received significant negative feedback.

“Getting choice means you are satisfying both sets of people,” Azran Osman Rani, CEO of AirAsia X. “Even families with kids are positive because now they are in the other zone and they feel less guilty.”

Malaysia Airlines introduced a largely child-free upper deck on its A380 aircraft when they entered service on July 1, 2012. The carrier said it will seat families only in the 70 upper-deck economy seats if there’s no more room on the lower level.

Etihad Airways, meanwhile, has hired consultants from a British child-care training center to teach child psychology and sociology to about 500 cabin crew designated as “flying nannies” on the Middle East carrier’s long-haul flights, a free service available in all classes.

The orange-aproned nannies seek to make traveling easier for parents by serving children’s meals early in the flight and offering infant activities ranging from magic tricks to origami and sock puppets.

Will it work?

The introduction of child-free zones risks backfiring if it alienates parents and probably will work only for budget airlines, said Andrew Wong, regional director for Europe and Australia at TripAdvisor’s flights unit.

“It’s a bit of a tricky area for full-service carriers,” he said. “You don’t really want to vilify parents traveling with kids; they’re people just like you and me.”

Yet a child’s screams waft over many rows of seats, so Scoot and AirAsia X separate child-free zones from the rest of the cabin with toilet blocks, and Malaysian puts them on a separate floor.

Still, branding children as the biggest source of in-flight annoyance isn’t fair, given the behavior of some adults on flights, said Curr, the Sydney Web designer.

“You can’t choose who you fly with,” she said. “Adults are usually the worst-behaved, and drunk sometimes.”

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