Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cry Baby, Fly Baby

At any given airport and within the confines of most jets, there are two types of travelers: those with children, and those who hate them.

In this second group, it’s hard to top the story of American Jean Barnard, the sixty-seven year old business woman who recently settled a lawsuit out of court with the Australian Airline Qantas.

It was while boarding flight 1936 to Darwin, a two hour flight scheduled to depart at twelve-ten in the afternoon, that Barnard’s life, she claims, took a devastating turn. A three year old boy seated nearby leaned over an armrest and “let loose a shriek” four inches from her face.

“Blood instantaneously shot into the back of my head,” she is quoted as saying in an article on ABC NEWS.COM. Her lawyer would argue that she sustained “significant personal injury” and “sudden sensio-neural hearing loss” (referred to elsewhere as Sensorineural Hearing Loss) inhibiting her ability to work.

Whatever happened, it was Barnard, and presumably not the three year old, who was ushered off the plane and taken to a hospital in the Northwest Territory town of Alice Springs. Barnard’s travel plans would be cut short, but her fifteen minutes of fame were yet to come.

We’ll never know the full story now that both parties have agreed to confidentiality. But, before this tidy July 12th conclusion, the defense reportedly presented some interesting pieces of evidence: Barnard had gotten new hearing aids a month before the flight; no other passengers were injured.

And, then there was the email, produced by which side, I am not sure, in which Barnard wrote that had her eardrums not exploded, she would have “dragged that kid out of his mother’s arms and stomped him to death.”

Excruciating pain does make a person a tad grumpy.

Still, this case troubles me.

Primarily because nobody, not the parents of a child nor an airline, can completely predict or control the vocal production of a three year old for any randomly selected period of four seconds without the use of medical intervention or duct tape.

The child who screamed, however, is not actually the star of this legal case. Why did the plaintiff file her suit against the airline instead of the kid? Can it be that seizing his assets most likely consisting of Thomas the Train, some Legos, and perhaps a koala bear Pillow Pet, was not really worth the effort? Or is it because, as Jonathan Turley reported on his legal blog, that the plaintiff claimed the airline was “negligent because the plane’s cabin and cockpit crew failed to “take all the necessary precautions to prevent the accident that resulted in her “injury”.”

Qantas argued their employees could not be expected to know when the kid was going to scream. And,  “there is no evidence that the child was screaming in the terminal or on board the aircraft prior to the particular scream which allegedly caused the damage.” Interestingly, this particular fracas occurred before takeoff, a time, along with descent, when the change in air pressure predictably causes pain and fussiness in children and gum popping in adults.

As you might guess, this entire episode leaves me with a few questions.

First, exactly how much is a person compensated when an airline fails to accomplish what no human since the Middle Paleolithic period has achieved, namely, to overpower the force of a childhood tantrum?

Second: will our children make us deaf?

And, third: the next time my own three year old wails in the close quarters of an aircraft, will the flight attendants suggest we either “quell the screams, pronto”, or "find a cozy spot in the cargo bin"?

We may never know the answer to the first question.

As for whether parenthood leads to deafness, we should give a big round of applause to biology for making this scenario nearly impossible. Indeed, adults emerge from the first five years of child-rearing deprived of sleep, malnourished, and several movies behind on their Netflix queue, but thankfully, every word of their children’s lexicon, including, “No”, “Why” and “ I don’t want to,” can be heard with perfect clarity.

According to an audiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, Dr. John Weigand, quoted in the ABC NEWS article, the type of injury described by Barnard is extremely unlikely to happen because of a child’s screams.

“It’s an injury that is more likely for someone who sustained a blast injury in battle,” he told ABC.

Still, the lawsuit was based on what was described as "sudden sensio-neural hearing loss” and something caused it.

In her deposition, Barnard denied having hearing aids, according to the article on ABC NEWS.COM.

But, if she did have them, as Qantas claimed, they would have amplified the child’s scream.

ABC NEWS quotes another audiologist who said the cries of a baby can be 130 decibels. That kind of noise can be painful especially, “if you are already hypersensitive to loud sounds due to an existing hearing loss.”

As far as what this means the next time we fly--when the sticker books, granola bars, Magna Doodles and Gummi Bears cannot compete with delays, missed naps, stressed out parents and five hours of physical containment--are we asking for a lawsuit--for us—or the airline?

I called Brian Lawler, Jean Barnard’s attorney, at Pilot Law in San Diego. He can’t talk about the case, but he did listen when I asked about the effect of the settlement and what it meant for parents when they travel.

“The facts here are unique,” he said, before politely saying he could not make an application of them to future situations.

I took that as a green light.

Grab your carry on and a preschooler, folks.

I know there’ll be plenty of dirty looks the next time one of my own kids howls, kicks a seat, or vomits on the beverage cart.

And, I get it.

I am embarrassed, apologetic, and irritated, too. And, the most difficult part of traveling with children---on a plane, or bus, or train--is that the one tactic every parent relies on when a child is devolving into a red-faced, irrational, angry little blob- to step outside with them, or move to another room- is not within the realm of possibilities. We, as much as the poor passengers who are forced to listen, are trapped.

So, barring the once-in-a-century time that someone’s eardrum has exploded, and assuming it’s a child, and not an adult who is experiencing a meltdown, how can we restore peace and quiet to the cabin?

The first thing we might all do is ask ourselves if we were perfectly behaved in our own childhood.

If your behavior in public, and especially on planes, was without reproach, then I sincerely hope Delta gave you some nice plastic wings.

If not, here’s a way to work towards peace and quiet while not letting a parent off the hook completely. This idea came to me after my daughter got a nose bleed twenty-nine thousand feet above New Mexico, in the fourth hour of a five hour flight. I only wish a fellow passenger had said this, instead of sending scowls.

Passenger A: Excuse me, I think you’re a terrible parent and your kid is obnoxious, but can I offer you some Kleenex for that child?

Parent: Oh, thank you, so much.

Passenger A: Oh, and here are some Silly Bandz I found tucked under a burrito behind my seat cushion.

Parent: You are too kind.

Passenger A: By the way, I hope your rental car has bird poop all over it.

Parent: Yes, the feeling’s mutual. Thanks, again.

Exposing the untidy, irascible quality of childhood in a public place is as hard on most parents as it is on innocent bystanders.

But, nobody, whatever their age, likes a crybaby.

A special thanks to everyone who helped last week, and to all the new readers who have stopped by. I am glad you're here.


Tim Morrissey said...

Why sue Quantas and not the mom? When they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he replied "that's where the money is."

Another well-researched and eminently readable post.

Jodes said...

Sarah, when Dov was about 19 months we got on a flight to Chicago only to discover upon takeoff (and not a moment sooner) that he had rotovirus. I thought people might kill us but I did consider telling the woman who gave me such hateful looks that it was most assuredly less pleasant for me than it was for her. Afterall, she wasn't the one with vomit in her underwear.

The world ain't perfect and 9 times out of 10, my kids are better behaved than a lot of the grown travelers we see who can't deal with bad weather and delays and such. On the 10th time, we just have to laugh and now, I guess, hope we don't get sued!

Gina said...

As the wife of an airline pilot and the mother of 3, I say bravo for this post!! My children are also better behaved than most of the adults on a flight. If you want kid free travel, drive yourself!!

Lunch Box Mom said...

Gina, so great to hear from someone who sees this from both sides of the situation. Thanks for the comment. -Sarah