When a flight becomes "pre-schoolers gone wild"

A family with toddlers is ejected from a JetBlue plane -- and kicks up a storm about kids and travel

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published March 12, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

       (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-442060p1.html'>Kenneth Man</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kenneth Man via Shutterstock)

Very few venues in this world -- especially ones that invlove confined spaces -- are thrilled to welcome a 2-year-old. Unless you're at a Wiggles reunion show, the most common response is a lot of rolled eyes, anticipatory grimacing and the question "Can we change our seats?" So when JetBlue staff noticed young Natalie Vieau boarding a flight from Turks and Caicos with her parents and her 3-year-old sister last month, it's possible they were already steeling themselves for Natalie to behave exactly like, well, a 2-year-old. When young Miss Vieau complied, pitching a fit that would have made Chris Brown proud, the crew kicked her and her family off the plane. Discuss.

The problem, the family says, arose when Natalie – and apparently her sister as well -- didn't appreciate the notion of sitting still and being buckled in. Natalie wanted to fly on her mother's lap, but federal regulations require children over the age of 2 to fly in their own seats. "We were holding them down with all of our might, seat belt on," their mother, Dr. Colette Vieau, told a Rhode Island TV station this week. "And I said, 'We have them seated. Can we go now?'" Instead, the pilot made the decision to ground the  family and have them escorted off the flight. They wound up having to book a hotel for the night and then find another flight home, to the tune of $2,000.

The very fact that Dr. Vieau describes the scene with the phrase having to use "all of our might" certainly suggests that little Natalie might be a handful. And her squirmtastic appearance on the "Today" show Monday doesn't do much to suggest she'd have settled down for a peaceful ride back to Boston. So it's unsurprising that when "Today" polled its viewers, "71 percent of more than 60,000 voters" agreed with the airline's decision to kick the family off the flight.

Modern flying is horrible enough – on top of all the usual indignities, nobody wants to be trapped in the air with a pair of freaked-out toddlers. This mortified family, however, just wanted to get home, and they remain confused about just how quickly the incident escalated. As Dr. Vieau says, "We did what we were asked to do. We weren't belligerent, drunk, angry or screaming. We were just having a hard time struggling with our children. Just some consideration, a little bit of humanity in the situation was really all I was looking for."

What stories like this illustrate is how often that "little bit of humanity" goes wanting. And the predictably vocal response shows how badly we've all been burned by other people's senses of entitlement. For their part, the Vieaus -- with their Caribbean vacation, their plea that they've flown with their very young brood an impressive 15 times before, and their sob story of having to lay out two grand for an extra night on a tropical island -- come off sounding exactly like the kind of spoiled, swaggering parents who make you avoid the playground. They may be lovely people whose kid had an off day – and if you're a parent, you've likely seen plenty of those – but their story can't engender too much sympathy. Too many of us have endured the nightmare of the family that just does not understand why little Finnegan's meltdown is not what everyone in earshot signed up for. We've all seen preschoolers gone wild and parents who blithely stood by. When we hear a story about a toddler freaking out, we immediately think, fairly or not, "Spoiled parents, spoiled kids."

That's why the story is hard from the other side, too. Sometimes all a family has to do is go somewhere other than a Chuck E. Cheese to rile up a whole lot of tantrums – and not from the 2-year olds. You need only look as far as the frothing comments about "yuppie larvae" with "unbearable brats," and observations that "kids just suck up oxygen and subway space anyways" to see that there's a whole mess of preemptive rage toward children and families. And even if a child is tantruming up a storm, it's still a stretch for an airline to claim, as the Vieaus assert, that she was "a risk to the safety and security of the aircraft in general."

We all have to navigate a pretty crowded planet together. As Dr. Vieau herself admits, "I don't know that I could blame JetBlue, to be totally fair. I just feel like it's airplane travel today in general." Kids don't make it easy – they are volatile, difficult and often really annoying beings, it's true. But they can't stay home until they learn not to scream and poop in their pants. Sometimes they have to travel for family reasons, and frankly, they're entitled to for recreational ones. They're people, and as such, they can be jerks just like everybody else. A parent doesn't always know, on the morning of a flight, whether she's going to get Quiet Little Napping Girl or Hellspawn Baby for the day. The best all of us can do with other people's kids is not be hostile just because they're kids. And the best we can do as parents is to know when to exit gracefully.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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